Largely dormant for more than 30 years, Pontchartrain Beach could be in line for a rebirth next year as a natural recreation area under a proposal by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
The plan, which was first proposed before Hurricane Katrina, essentially marks the culmination of the foundation’s efforts to clean up and improve the water quality in the basin, a pivot from the “Save Our Lake” campaign long synonymous with the organization to an outreach and educational effort aimed at reconnecting New Orleanians with the lake.
“The next thing will be ‘Enjoy Our Beach,’ ” said Dwight Williams, acting executive director of the foundation.
Williams pitched the plan Thursday to a committee of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which now oversees the beach.
Under the plan, the beach would be reopened and managed by the foundation, with improvements aimed at providing recreational opportunities including a swimming area, plus educational features and environmental improvements.
The proposal does not include plans to reopen an amusement park on the lakefront.
The foundation does not plan to have lifeguards at the beach, so swimmers would head into the water at their own risk.
Employing lifeguards would make the foundation legally responsible should something happen, and given the murkiness of the water along the lakefront, it could be difficult for one of them to see if a swimmer was in trouble, Williams said.
To protect swimmers, the foundation does plan to erect signs in the water to alert people to dangerous spots, areas where the beach drops off and other dangers, said John Lopez, who works for the foundation.
“It’s basically a safe beach, but it has hazards like any water body,” he said.
The foundation would pay a nominal fee to lease the beach. In doing so, however, it would relieve the Flood Protection Authority of its current responsibilities to monitor and maintain that part of the lakefront, which would save the agency some money.
The authority’s full board of commissioners is expected to sign off on the lease at a meeting this week.
Though largely dormant for decades, the area has a long history as a recreational site.
The lakefront became popular as a recreation area starting in the mid-1800s as development moved into the swampy land along the lake’s southern edge, eventually becoming a recreation area connected to the city’s downtown areas by a train along Elysian Fields Avenue known as “Smokey Mary,” according to a report on the area by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
The beach itself was the result of a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s that shipped in sand from Horn Island, Mississippi, to build a 21-acre site that offered access to the lake and room for an amusement park. Rides such as the Zephyr roller coaster and the Wild Maus, a stage and concessions were added later.
By the 1980s, attendance had seriously dropped as declining water quality in the lake and erosion took their toll on the natural features and competition from other amusement parks lessened the demand for Pontchartrain Beach’s rides. The beach shut down and the rides were sold off in 1983.
The beach itself was reopened to the public 10 years later as part of the deal that allowed UNO to build on the site. It was shut again in 2012 after two people drowned.
The foundation would seek to use the beach largely to “test the waters” of public interest and to raise funds in the first year it would operate the site.
While there are few plans for major construction — bathroom facilities would initially be taken care of with portable toilets, for example — there is a possibility of using Federal Emergency Management Agency money to fix up the pier at the beach, Williams said.
There also could be discussions with UNO about allowing access through the university’s research park to connect the beach to the foundation’s lighthouse nearby.
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