CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
For generations of kids in New Orleans, the acronym NORD (New Orleans Recreation Department) was synonymous with healthy fun, creative expression and valuable life lessons. Unfortunately, more recent generations may likely associate NORD with overgrown ballparks, empty swimming pools and the city’s void of organized youth activities.
Though once acclaimed as a national model of success, in recent years NORD had fallen apart due in part to inconsistent funding and frequent changes in leadership. The Hurricane Katrina levee failures delivered a harsh blow to this already neglected recreation system. Despite storm recovery efforts, only 26 of the city’s 143 parks were functional last year.
In response, a group of citizen activists, business leaders and elected officials began organizing a massive overhaul. Last fall, city voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to replace NORD with a new group called the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. This new group is structured as a public-private partnership and is now responsible for athletic and cultural programs for youth, seniors and others.
“So many of us have such incredible memories of growing up on a New Orleans Recreational Department playground when our New Orleans Recreation Department was the best in the country,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a press conference announcing the new commission. Its members, he said, “are committed to making it the best once again.”
Greater and more stable funding is a key to the initiative. In the past, NORD’s budget fluctuated annually based on City Hall priorities. Last year, the budget was about $5 million. By comparison, Baton Rouge spends about $40 million a year on recreation. Following an increase in dedicated property taxes, however, New Orleans has budgeted $10 million for this year, while the new commission is working with area businesses to secure more private contributions.
“What we’re going to do is bring this community together,” commission chairman Roy Glapion says. “We’re going to level the playing field, and we’re going to give these kids something to be proud of as they move through their lives.”
Tasks before the commission now include a national search for its first executive director, opening more playgrounds and pools around the city and increasing the number of children served from 15,000 to 24,000. The commission’s 13-member panel meets in New Orleans City Council chambers on the second Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. to hear input from the public.