New Orleans City Park is the largest swath of continuous green space in the city, complete with an amusement park, botanical garden, tennis center, putt-putt course, birding corridor, dog park and art museum. The 1,300-acre park, which hosts more than a million visitors a year, receives little money from the city and state and funds itself through yearly events, attractions, rentals and — most controversial — a premium golf course.
The management of City Park has clashed with the public at times about how to make enough revenue to grow from its only real resource — its land — while meeting the public demand for green space that is accessible to everyone. Most recently the discord was over the new Bayou Oaks at City Park golf course.
City Park CEO Bob Becker said the park's future is tied to financial intervention by the public: a possible millage similar to what the Audubon Commission currently has in place for the Audubon Nature Institute. Other possibilities, he said, include sports betting and services that don't depend on good weather.
The park is eligible for $2.2 million in state slot funds, gathered from slot gambling revenues at places such as the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, that could help pay for its operations. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year the park received about $2.1 million in slot funds, which was cut to $1.95 million the next year. The current fiscal year's allocation was reduced even further to $1.9 million, and park officials expect about the same for June.
The city's annual budget includes no allocations for City Park. In the past, however, the park has been awarded city revenue from several bond referendums, most recently a $4 million Community Development Block Grant to improve the park's festival grounds. City Park also receives a 2 percent city sales tax from revenue generated inside the park. The 2016-2017 fiscal year generated about $460,000 in sales tax revenue, and officials estimate it will bring in about $533,000 this year. It's not nearly enough to cover the park's $20.5 million annual budget, Becker said. Maintenance, garbage disposal, electrical and water costs have risen, while public support has fallen each year, he added.
Typically, a park and recreation agency covers 29 percent of operating expenditures through its own revenue generation, according to the 2017 National Recreation and Park Association performance review. City Park generates 90 percent of its operating costs. On average, parks derive 60 percent of their operating expenditures from general fund tax support, according to the NRPA review. City Park gets 10 percent that way.
Most of the park's revenue stems from admission to outdoor activities: Storyland, the amusement park and golf consistently bring in the most money every year. But for a park that relies heavily on sunshine, extreme freezes and rainy weekends can take a toll on revenues. Once that revenue stream is damaged, there's no way to generate enough to balance the budget, Becker said. Constant weekend rain throughout July and August took a chunk out of Storyland's revenues, while December's extreme cold marred revenue from Celebration in the Oaks, the park's largest annual fundraiser.
"At the end of this year, we are almost certainly going to be at a deficit and we'll have to take money out of reserves," Becker said. "You can only do that so many times until you're out (of money)."
If the park can't meet its budget year after year, it eventually will have to cut services, including reducing hours for amusements and performing less maintenance on sports fields, roads, sidewalks and buildings.
Park officials said the model used to fund the park needs to change. City Park's Board of Directors has for years considered requesting a millage to help support operational costs, similar to one in place for the Audubon Commission. In 2014, an early renewal of the tax supporting the Audubon Nature Institute not only was rejected by New Orleans voters by a two-to-one margin, but opposition to the measure was distributed evenly across the city, with voters at all but 10 of the city's 366 voting precincts voting it down.
City Park's millage first requires support from the city administration, said City Park Board of Directors Chairman Steve Pettus. The board considered proposing a millage around the same time Audubon's rate increase failed, but Pettus said the city administration didn't look favorably on any new park proposals after that.
"Nobody wants to have a defeat," he said, adding that he hopes City Park's universal draw, central location and accessibility will encourage city officials to support a millage in the future. Craig Belden, press secretary for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, gave no hint of whether City Park would get that support. As with all millages, he said, "(the city) will review the millage when it is proposed."
The park's only available resource is land. When park officials decided to dedicate 205 acres of that land for a new premium golf course in 2015, the public outcry spilled into board meetings and editorials. The City Park for Everyone Coalition even filed a lawsuit against the park and FEMA seeking to block development of the course.
At issue was the footprint of the former East and West courses of the City Park golf complex, which were flooded after Hurricane Katrina and sat unused for a decade. While officials created a plan for a single 18-hole championship-style golf course on the site, the links became overgrown and residents began using the old courses for other activities.
Park goers advocating smarter water use, habitat protection and increased access to the park for low-income residents urged the board to allow the space to continue a progression to wilderness. The board, however, argued it needed the income from golf, which previously had been a central funding avenue for the park, especially after the former South Course was closed in 2005.
In 2009, the park reopened its North Course with plans for two additional courses. A lack of funding forced planners to pare down those plans to a single course, Bayou Oaks at City Park, developed in partnership with the Bayou District Foundation, which redeveloped the St. Bernard public housing development into Columbia Parc in 2010.
Justin Kray, president of the City Park for Everyone Coalition, which was formed to oppose Bayou Oaks, said although golf revenues are beneficial to the balance sheet during the first year, upkeep costs cause a net loss over time. Depreciation and damage from major storms cause the course to become a liability, Kray said.
"Ultimately, the golf course was not built because of staggering demand or a revenue optimal analysis," he said. "It was because it was the only way [City Park Improvement Association] could get a fat FEMA check which, post-Katrina, required a one-for-one replacement of the damaged infrastructure in order to secure federal funding."
The coalition filed the suit in 2015, claiming the board and FEMA violated state and federal laws by failing to properly assess the impacts of a construction project that could destroy "unique and rare" undeveloped wetlands on the park's grounds. Kray said the loss of free and accessible park land will lead to more development in the future.
"We fear that as a result, City Park will find itself shackled to an onerous golf course, which will likely become a revenue drain in the foreseeable future and necessitate the development of other areas of the park to offset its losses," he said.
During Becker's tenure, City Park has reduced the golf footprint by two courses and 192 acres. Some park users still bristle at the $24 million Bayou Oaks course, but Becker argues park staff has opened "so much passive space that we've given up multiple revenue streams." Golf has been a moneymaker for City Park — park officials project nearly $5 million in revenue this budget year — so how does the board balance a need for revenue with the public's demand for green space?
"Somebody that isn't in favor of golf, they have to realize we've reduced the courses," said John Hopper, City Park's chief development officer. "You can't give everyone what they want."
The board is sitting on plans for a 4-acre splash park north of Roosevelt Mall. Construction was slated to begin in 2014, but state funding ran out before the park could break ground.
"In tight budgets, people start to cut the things that have more to do with development and art," Pettus said, "but that's what feeds your soul and you can't really do without that stuff."
Park staff also is keeping a watch on the Louisiana Legislature to see if lawmakers legalize sports betting, another potential revenue stream for the park. Park officials also are considering money-generating attractions such as a restaurant, volleyball court or extended parking.
Public backlash over building additional structures in the park sometimes has steered the park's board away from "active" land uses, most notably when it approved 2017 Master Plan amendments that declared 90 acres of former golf course land as "passive" open space. That declaration more than doubled the park's natural habitat areas to 150 acres.
Hopper said only 1 percent of City Park's footprint is taken up by buildings. Parking takes up roughly 2 percent, with most of that clustered near City Park Avenue and Marconi Drive. He added that all the buildings inside City Park could fit inside the driving range.
Many park users don't know the financial details that drive the City Park board's decisions, which is where Friends of City Park steps in. The regional nonprofit works to raise public perception of the park and raise money for capital improvement projects through donations and large-scale events. Lark in the Park, an annual soiree, raises money for a specific park project every year; last year's event raised enough funds to restore the aging Tad Gormley Stadium.
"If we didn't have the fundraiser, they wouldn't have been able to have another football season there," Friends of City Park Executive Director Casie Duplechain said. "We're supportive in those ways that are really vital." Her staff also is creating an educational program aimed at increasing understanding of the park's financial intricacies and history, she said.
Becker said City Park officials expect to end the 2017-2018 fiscal year in the hole, due to an "outdated" revenue model based on sunshine and fair weather. Even with revenue from the golf course, festival grounds and amusement park, City Park is going to need public intervention soon.
"We are reaching the point here in the next few years," Becker said, "where the public is going to have to make a decision whether they want a world-class park."
Most of the park's revenue stems from admission to outdoor activities. But extreme freezes and rainy weekends can take a toll on revenues.
Once that happens, there's no way to generate enough money to balance the budget, Becker said.
Golf has been a moneymaker for City Park so how does the board balance a need for revenue with the public's demand for green space?