New Orleans City Park has reopened most of its attractions, and more people are flocking to its bicycle paths, play areas and picnic spots.
But with a continued burn through its cash reserves and little chance of holding big, money-making events anytime soon, park officials are again looking to Louisiana state government for an injection of money to forestall steeper spending cuts.
A quick glance these days at New Orleans City Park might suggest a thriving public space.
Chief executive officer Bob Becker said he’ll be seeking $5 million in emergency funding from the Legislature beginning Monday, to help plug a multi-million dollar hole that remains in the operating budget despite furloughs and layoffs.
Two earlier funding requests to the state have been denied. But after cutting his $22.5 million budget by 22% — and with weddings and other events that bring in a considerable chunk of the park’s yearly revenue still curtailed by coronavirus restrictions — Becker said a third plea to Baton Rouge represents his best chance to avoid spending cuts that could leave the park overgrown and untended, as in in the grim days after Hurricane Katrina.
“In a good year, City Park is a phenomenal deal for the citizens of this city, the state and the region,” Becker said, referencing the park’s longstanding practice of raising 90% of its own revenue. “However, when a bad year comes … like during and after COVID, the government has to step in and help.”
On most days since the coronavirus curtailed normal activities last spring, the 1,300-acre park has been awash in runners, bikers, families and small groups seeking a socially distanced alternative to long days at home.
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“We were trying Champions Square at first, and then we were like, ‘Let’s go to City Park!’ And when it’s raining, we are able to get under here,’” Donisha Hunter said at the park’s Peristyle, after she and her friends wrapped up their exercise routine there Saturday morning. The group has worked out at the park almost every weekend since restrictions aimed at stopping the coronavirus began.
Restrictions imposed in March and April were much tighter, and many more of the park’s attractions were closed. An exception was the Bayou Oaks golf course, which saw so many golfers in the spring and summer that it turned a modest profit.
Since New Orleans moved to Phase 2 of reopening in June, the park has opened Storyland, City Putt, the New Orleans Botanical Garden and some other attractions, with limited admission.
Those attractions bring in some revenue, but it’s nothing compared to weddings and big events such as the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, which won’t be happening this year.
Normally, the park would collect at least $3 million a year from weddings, galas and similar events. But even after altering its pricing to account for smaller guest lists, the park has booked only two weddings since March.
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“When people want to get married, they want to get married,” Becker said.
There’s more competition for those bookings because New Orleans has adopted tighter restrictions on wedding attendance than seen in neighboring parishes.
Event and wedding venues in Jefferson Parish, for example, can host guests at 50% capacity. In Orleans, indoor venues are limited to 50% capacity or 25 people, whichever is fewer; outside events may have 50 guests.
Becker conceded that a move to Phase 3, which Mayor LaToya Cantrell has signaled could be coming, would help the park financially. But he said he’s not faulting the mayor, who urged voters to back plans for City Park to receive property tax money for the first time in its 165-year history in 2019. That check won’t be sent until early 2021, and even with it, Becker said he will still seek more private dollars or government aid to maintain the park.
Already, Becker has furloughed all 275 part-time employees. Full-time staff have had their pay cut by as much as 25%, and another third of full-timers have been laid off, just so the park can work within a curtailed $17.5 million budget. The park is now down to 80 full-time staffers.
City Park still lost $785,000 in July and August and has been drawing from its reserves since March. Though the park once had $3.1 million in the bank, there’s only $2.1 million left, Becker said — and without aid, that money could be gone by next year.
If the Legislature sent $5 million, it would help the park avoid a scenario like the one it faced after Katrina struck in 2005. In those years of dwindling revenue, the park was faced with a massive cleanup and didn’t have the money to cut its grass regularly or to keep away feral hogs, coyotes and rodents.
State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, said Friday that she, Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans,and others plan to again ask their lawmaker colleagues to consider the park in the special session that begins Monday.
“We are all understanding of the need for the park from a recreational perspective for residents,” said Hilferty, whose district includes parts of New Orleans and Metairie.
A small federal grant along with fundraising — including a $200,000 infusion from individual donors in April — has helped City Park some. Becker is also hopeful about the winter holiday season, a period in which the park typically generates more than a third of its revenue. The park is looking into retooling popular events, such as Celebration in the Oaks, to adhere to current restrictions.
“We spent 15 years rebuilding this park to be a first-class operation,” he said. “And no one wants to see it deteriorate.”