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Back to NOLA: City Park's Place

NEW ORLEANS – Oceola Probst has the perfect New Orleans name, the kind that when he introduces himself you wonder, “Is he messing with me?”

But his name’s legit and he’s every bit as local as one would think an Oceola Probst would be.

Mr. Probst is 78 years old. He’s been playing City Park golf courses since 1951 – or ’52, somewhere around that time.

“I get out here about once a week nowadays,” he says, putting his golf shoes into the back of his pick-up truck with the camper hood. “Got a group, usually come out here on Wednesdays. Used to be a 6 handicap, but now about an 18 with my bad back.”

Mr. Probst is fresh from playing the North Course at City Park. It’s the lone remaining track from a once 72-hole layout that was reduced to near rubble by Hurricane Katrina.

It took one day to destroy more than 150 years of doing, one day to cause more than $55 million in damages. On Aug. 29, 2005, 1,300 acres of shared memories and history was just a plot of land – just tangled nature.

“It was discussed, about letting the park go,” said current City Park chief development officer John Hopper. “But no one wanted to go that route, because you would have a 1,300-acre cancer in the middle of the city. That would be hard for the surrounding area to recover.”

“City Park,” Hopper continued, “is part and parcel of the fabric of New Orleans. It’s where people say, ‘My dad taught me how to play golf here,’ ‘I caught my first fish here,’ ‘I played football here,’ ‘I got married here.’”

City Park has always been more than just a golfing locale, but golf used to be the heart of the financial operation, pumping in more cash flow than any other resource to keep the park up and running. Prior to Katrina, golf contributed $4.5 million to an operating budget of nearly $11 million.

Today, the operating budget is roughly the same, but golf, with only one venue rather than four, is the fourth primary earner, with a gross budgeted revenue of $1.5 million.

But soon, one way or the other, there will be two venues.

“On March 22,” said North Course general manager Gary Nelson, “it was officially approved for a new 18 holes.”

City Park is currently working with the Bayou District Foundation to make that new layout a “championship” course. But as BDF co-founding member Mike Rodrigue reiterated several times during an interview, “it’s a public process.”

“If it was a private sector we could move with a lot more agility,” Rodrigue said. “With the public process, you pick a time to meet and talk about the next meeting.”

Rodrigue loves City Park. He’s one of those kids about which Hopper described, a kid who used to ride on the back of his dad’s pull cart.

He and fellow BDF co-founder Gerry Barousse have a plan. It won’t be easy to execute, but nothing’s been simple in nearly six years.

Their Bayou District Foundation was created in the wake of Katrina with seed money from the Fore!Kids Foundation, which raises funds for children’s charities and was chaired by Rodrigue for eight years.

It’s modeled after the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta and, like its predecessor, it reaches well beyond golf. Its purpose, according to its website, is “to create a new mixed-income community, complete with schools and recreational facilities in the old St. Bernard Housing Community.”

Golf is a large part of that equation.

“It’s twofold,” Barousse said of golf’s contribution to the foundation. “It allows us to generate capital for projects and put that back into the community. The other side is introducing golf to young children in the community.”

Added Rodrigue, “Historically, people that lived in St. Bernard didn’t visit City Park – it’s three blocks away. People were intimidated to come over. Part of what we’ve done in the last four years is to introduce golf, initially through Bayou District junior golf programs and now partnering with the First Tee.”

Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. When she busted the 17th Street Canal, water washed over St. Bernard Parish and City Park in a near Biblical sense. All are still fighting to recover to this day.

Census reports show New Orleans lost nearly one-quarter of its residents pre-Katrina to 2010 (estimated 455,000 to 343,829).

St. Bernard, meanwhile, has lost nearly half its population since the catastrophe. But it’s on the mend, thanks to philanthropic sources like the Bayou District Foundation and the St. Bernard Project, which has built 343 houses, to date, in the parish since its founding in March 2006.

City Park is on the rise as well.

“Pre-Katrina, we had 130 full-time employees,” Hopper said. “We were at 23 at one point after the storm and now were up to 85. The picture is much rosier, but there was a lot of suffering to get to this point.”

City Park is largely self-sufficient. It gets $1.9 million from state funds, but nothing from the city of New Orleans in respect to its operating budget.

“We need lots and lots of golf, lots of weddings, lots of people coming to the amusement park, lots of people renting our facilities,” Hopper said.

The golf rounds will increase. They currently stand around 43,000 a year on the North Course, according to Nelson, and with what is being proposed, the “championship” venue should be quite an attraction. It will play from 5,150 yards to 7,240 yards, with five sets of tees; sit over 250 acres; is being designed by Rees Jones Architects; and will be comprised of half of the old East Course and half of the old West Course.

“It will be competitive with anything on offer in the city,” said Barousse. “It’s accessible by street car from downtown, it’s seven minutes by cab. It will be very tourist friendly, Convention Center friendly.”

The Bayou District Foundation very much wants to be a part of this project. Income created can benefit other endeavors and they can play a larger role in developing golf in the community.

City Park, likewise, wants BDF to be a partner.

“Their involvement will allow the course to be of much better quality,” Hopper said. “If for some reason it doesn’t work, the park is prepared to move forward with the money we have on our own to develop that land for a golf course.

“The optimist in me says we are close to solidifying that partnership, but for a project that has a $24 million price tag, there are a lot of details to work out. It’s a lot of stars that have to align. If there was only one donor, it would be a whole lot more simple. But Bayou District Foundation is bringing money to the table, we’re bringing money to the table, FEMA is bringing money to the table, we need to find donors, we’re a state agency not a private development, so all of those things have to come together.”

It’s a public process.

The park had a master plan in place prior to Katrina to have all of its projects to be completed or in development by 2018. It’s since been amended. The date is still desired, but the contents of the plan have been jumbled about a bit.

“The original plan called for a 54-hole facility,” Rodrigue noted, as the South Course was going to be closed for reuse as outdoor recreation and the other courses were going to be renovated to some degree. “We revised it to a 45-hole facility and it has further been reduced to a 36-hole facility.

“Most of the negative comments were about affordability. They also wanted more hiking and biking which didn’t exist before.”

“We’re probably another four or five months before we can start really to see things open up,” Barousse said. “We had hoped to be ready for the Super Bowl in 2013 (to be contested in New Orleans), that’s not a realistic expectation now.”

Stated Hopper, “We’re looking at about two years after the ink dries.”

It took three years for the North Course, noted as the beginner’s track, to re-open post-Katrina. Eventually it will have a sibling, that’s not in question – just the superiority of that sibling.

Excellence is something with which City Park is very familiar. As site of the PGA Tour’s New Orleans Open from 1938-62, it hosted golf royalty like Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson.

But it’s not the kings of golf, rather the common man to which City Park caters. Men like Oceola Probst.

As Probst headed home to Metairie, a magpie group of golfers spaced out along the two-tier driving range on the North Course.

Down near the far right of the range a ball clanked loudly against one of the stables, enough to make those 15 stalls down take notice.

W.G. Choi and T.K. Lee were trying to practice in anonymity, but their unstructured swings betrayed them. The two, on loan from South Korea, were taking a break from work at the Waterford Nuclear Generating Station in nearby Killona.

Choi is 30; Lee 34. Both men have been playing for but two months and at the moment, they’re hitting balls in directions a contortionist would think impossible.

But they’re smiling.

“Here to have fun,” Lee said. “Enjoy weather.”

Up a few stalls to the left, Gary Dupuy was giving his son, Gavin, a lesson. Gavin’s mother, grandmother and sister were watching, also enjoying the sun and breeze, as was his cousin, Evan.

“I’m 7 ½,” Evan said of his age. “He’s 7 ¾.”

The Dupuys used to live in St. Bernard Parish. Katrina forced their relocation to North Carolina, where Gary works as a pediatrician.

“We came back to visit family,” Gary said. “My wife’s sister lives here. They had a two-story home so they were able to salvage things, but we just had a single-story and all of our stuff was totaled.”

After a few words of instruction and encouragement, Gavin took a few swings and missed on each occasion. Gary then stepped in behind him and helped him make contact.

“Finally,” the exasperated 7 ¾-year-old said.

Rebecca and Lacy Mirovich weren't having any issues striking the ball. Despite having only picked up the game two years ago, both are quite accomplished amateurs, their very proud father, Dannie, made known.

Like the Dupuys, Dannie and family resided in the greater New Orleans area before the storm. And like the Dupuys, they relocated to North Carolina.

They were back in town visiting his wife’s mother and Dannie didn’t hesitate to bring his daughters to one of the only public courses around these parts.

“The girls play all the time,” Dannie said of Rebecca, a 17-year-old high school senior, and Lacy, a 15-year-old sophomore. “We’ve got 3 acres of land in North Carolina, which we could never have down here, and I built a 20-, 40- and 60-yard chipping area as well as a sand trap.

“After school, the girls hit 100 balls a day and you can see the results. In just two years, Lacy has an 11.9 handicap and Rebecca’s is 6.9.”

That’s what you get at City Park: kids, teens, fathers, mothers, grandparents, blacks, whites, Asians, t-shirts, collars, veterans, beginners, those of skill, and those … just having a good time and delighting in the weather.

“It’s an Everyman golf course,” Hopper said of City Park’s current singular layout. “With this course, with the proposed course and with everything we do at City Park, we are trying to fulfill a single mission: providing services to the people that they want.”

Hurricane Katrina flooded 90 percent of City Park’s 1,300 acres. It did damage equal to five times the park’s annual operating budget. It decimated its work force.

In 2018, when the original master plan was set to go live, New Orleans will turn 300 years old. And whether projects are finished or just getting started, whether there are 18 holes of golf, 36 holes or more, there will still be a City Park.

“It’s been a difficult recovery process,” Hopper said. “But, in the end, we’re building a better park.”