It all began with an email.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in August 2005, Charlie Yates Jr. — an Atlanta philanthropist and an executive at the time for Zurich Insurance Group, title sponsor of the PGA Tour stop in New Orleans — reached out to Mike Rodrigue, a former tournament chairman of the Zurich Classic. Yates invited Rodrigue to bring a group to see the urban revitalization project nested next to East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the home course for Bobby Jones, the first golfer to complete golf’s Grand Slam, in 1930.
A few months later, Rodrigue toured East Lake’s surrounding community with Gerry Barousse Jr., a real estate developer and banker, and Gary Solomon, a venture capitalist. They marveled at the effort, which was spearheaded by Tom Cousins, a real estate developer who built the CNN Center and helped bring N.B.A. and N.H.L. teams to Atlanta.
In 1995, Cousins bought East Lake Golf Club out of receivership and established the East Lake Foundation. He partnered with the City of Atlanta to raze East Lake Meadows, a troubled 650-unit public housing complex, and build the Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income community. A charter school, a Y.M.C.A. and a nine-hole public golf course soon followed.
Proceeds from hosting the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club are funneled back to the foundation for community programs. The effect on the neighborhood can be measured in a drastic reduction in crime, high employment rates, and improved academic scores and high school graduation rates.
On the trip home to New Orleans, Rodrigue’s group debated whether the East Lake model could be replicated in New Orleans.
A larger debate brewed over the future of public housing in New Orleans, a subject fraught with charges of gentrification and discrimination. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had more than 7,000 public housing units.
Rodrigue grew up in Gentilly, a neighborhood that was a half a mile north of the St. Bernard projects, and recognized the similarities to the East Lake project. His parents forbade him from stepping foot in St. Bernard, one of the most dangerous areas in the city. Instead, he was dropped off every day at City Park, the 1,300-acre park just to the west of St. Bernard, and he played golf.
Rodrigue dreamed of City Park having a championship course, but it lacked the resources to build one. Hurricane Katrina provided an opportunity to rethink the future of the golf course, which in its heyday had 81 holes and is now also home to the North Course, an 18-hole layout, that reopened in 2009.
Inspired by the revitalization of the East Lake community, Rodrigue, Barousse and Solomon formed the Bayou District Foundation, a nonprofit organization to spearhead neighborhood redevelopment in New Orleans.
Before being ruined by floodwater, the St. Bernard public housing development consisted of 1,330 units, though only 920 were deemed livable. The area also suffered from a high crime rate and faltering schools. Over the opposition and protest of residents, the city voted in 2006 to raze the four largest public housing projects, including St. Bernard.
That plan was delayed in court for more than a year after the Advancement Project, a civil-rights group based in Washington, sued to keep the complexes from being knocked down.
“Hurricane Katrina was used as an excuse to remove lower-income black families from New Orleans,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project.
Construction of Columbia Parc became a reality when the Housing Authority of New Orleans received $120 million in low-income housing tax credits from a variety of federal programs and selected the Bayou District Foundation as its partner. All told, 685 mixed-income residential units, including a senior living center, were built over 13 city blocks.
President Barack Obama visited the neighborhood in 2010, the year Columbia Parc opened, and the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Ashford, who is employed by the motor vehicles department, moved into Columbia Parc five years ago and lives in a three-bedroom townhouse with stainless-steel appliances and a granite countertop. Of the 685 households, 493 have public-housing or reduced-rental rates, with all community residents either employed at least 20 hours per week, in vocational training or enrolled in an accredited college or university.
“You don’t know here if your neighbor is on Section 8, on the voucher program, the tax credit, or paying market rate,” Ashford, a 49-year-old single mother, said. “And nobody is judging anyone.”
Still, of those who had lived in the more than 3,000 households in New Orleans’s four largest public housing complexes before Hurricane Katrina, only a percentage have returned to their former neighborhoods, leading to a housing crunch and charges of discrimination. In May 2010, displaced residents staged a rally and sit-in at the Columbia Parc offices to demand their right to return to their homes. Approximately 125 families who lived in St. Bernard are residents of Columbia Parc.
“Every time I’m in New Orleans I drive by and I sit in my parked car and cry for all the people that lost their homes,” Browne Dianis said.
The neighborhood has continued to change. In 2013, the Bayou District Foundation opened an early childhood learning center that serves 168 Head Start-eligible children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. Workers are digging test pylons for a charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade that is scheduled to open in 2018, two blocks from a college preparatory public high school.
Sixteen communities across the country are working on neighborhood revitalization projects patterned after East Lake, and another 30 are in the pipeline, Cousins said.
So far, New Orleans is the only city to feature golf as part of its urban redevelopment. Barousse, chairman of the Bayou District Foundation, said “it’s hard for some people to connect the dots” about why the golf element was necessary.
“But from our perspective,” he added, “we think it is crucial to create sustainability within the model and a revenue stream to support the program.”
The foundation and New Orleans were partners on the $24 million golf course project, and about $500,000 annually from golf operations will help support community programs, with another $800,000 going toward activities at City Park.
A market feasibility study projected 24,000 rounds at Bayou Oaks as the break-even point, and Barousse said the budget calls for 30,000 rounds. With 54,000 people within a mile of the 36-hole facility, and a desirable location 10 minutes from downtown, Bayou Oaks is expected to tap into the city’s tourism and convention business, and add to the appeal of future Super Bowl and Final Four bids.
The golf course plan had also generated protests by conservationists, who cited the presence of wetlands and filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop the construction. A compromise was reached in which the golf footprint in the park was left 38 percent smaller than it was before Katrina. The remainder of the land was converted into festival grounds, a Frisbee golf course and green space for public use.
The golf complex includes a junior training center and First Tee facility, offering local youths access to a world-class facility operated by the PGA Tour. The Zurich Classic is held at T.P.C. Louisiana, but Bayou Oaks would like to host a prominent event. The tour’s first tournament in New Orleans, in 1938, was in City Park.
“Golf provides some incremental revenue, but the magic is the whole system,” said Joe Ogilvie, a former tour player who sat on the foundation’s advisory board. “The community is revitalized based on the shared vision that life can be better for the student, the parent and if you achieve that the overall community.”
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