Tour Championship: A Model Course to Copy

East Lake’s success inspires New Orleans idea

Michelle Hiskey
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA)

Among the devastation Hurricane Katrina left behind in New Orleans were the civic pieces needed for a restoration like Atlantans have seen at East Lake. Folks from the area where this week’s Tour Championship is being played are connecting with their counterparts in New Orleans to see if another “golf with a purpose” project could resuscitate a blighted area.

“The opportunity would not be here without Katrina, or had the East Lake model not been here,” said Gerry Barousse Jr., 48, president of Monarch Real Estate Advisors, who seeks to play a role in New Orleans like developer Tom Cousins did at East Lake.

Even though the old East Lake and today’s New Orleans’ City Park area experienced different types of ruin for different reasons, they share many ingredients:

A historic green space in disrepair. Here, it was East Lake Golf Club, the home of golf legend Bobby Jones. There, it’s a 1,300-acre historic city park — not quite double the size of New York’s Central Park — where several public golf courses were suffering from neglect even before being submerged by storm water.

Architect Rees Jones, who helped boost East Lake back to prominence, may help redesign the City Park courses, Barousse said. Corporate memberships would help finance that upgrade.

Troubled public housing. East Lake Meadows was nicknamed “Little Vietnam” for its violence. In New Orleans, the St. Bernard Housing Development was one of the city’s biggest projects and known for drug trading and crime. Its fate after Katrina water and mold damage is uncertain.

Because the housing authority in New Orleans is in receivership and basically run by federal officials, getting approval to tear down and transform St. Bernard is the biggest obstacle for the East Lake proponents, Barousse said.

“Golf can’t drive the bus,” Barousse said. “We don’t feel like we can do one piece [golf] and not all three [housing and education]. … It really needs to be done as a package, and we know that the CEOs and sponsors will come if it’s not just about the golf but about the community.”

A PGA Tour tournament and nonprofit that can help spearhead change. The redone East Lake attracted the Tour Championship. Its charitable arm is the East Lake Community Foundation, which oversees many programs like the First Tee, which teaches golf to local youngsters.

The Zurich Classic is currently played at the TPC of Louisiana, which had extensive damage from Katrina. It’s an event with roots at City Park’s east course, where it began in 1938 as one of the tour’s oldest surviving events.

The Zurich Classic benefits Fore! Kids Foundation, which raises money for children’s charities through golf events.

“Like us, Fore! Kids are using golf as their organizing theme and their hook,” said Carol Naughton, executive director of the East Lake Community Foundation. “Their efforts are to promote great things in the community and golf as the vehicle to make it happen.”

An attractive location to lure homeowners back to a mixed-income community. At the Villages of East Lake, public-housing families live next door to people with housing subsidies and those who pay market rate. That mix could be a great magnet to this part of New Orleans, once people feel that the levees and streets are safe.

“You see Centennial Place and East Lake, that’s what we would love to see here, to rejuvenate the city,” Barousse said. “If this succeeds, it would accelerate other people coming back.”

Interest in charter schools. The public elementary and middle schools near East Lake became Drew Charter School. In New Orleans, some schools totaled by Katrina are being replaced by charter schools. A YMCA might be part of the new school near New Orleans’ City Park, just as it is in East Lake.

The project remains in the “conceptual” stage, Barousse said, but encouraging signs include New Orleans city officials touring East Lake and an ongoing sharing of resources.

Just as Atlanta has become the new home for many displaced people from New Orleans, the renovation projects share common human links, too.

One of the first people to suggest the project was Charlie Yates, a member of the Yates family whose connection to East Lake goes back to the days of Bobby Jones. Charlie Yates works in Louisiana for Zurich, the insurance company that sponsors the PGA Tour event there.

One of the most critical bridges may be Byron Williams. He grew up in St. Bernard and returned to coach there and live near City Park after captaining the football team at Morris Brown College.

Williams, 40, evacuated after Katrina to Atlanta, and ended up living in the Villages of East Lake. Today he is serving as an ambassador from his new community to the old.

This week, he met with ministers near City Park to paint the picture of what he calls “the East Lake of New Orleans.”

“Man, this could work,” he said. “We have to build that trust thing there because no one ever did this before. … I don’t see why it couldn’t work here, but it’s something new, and they’ve never experienced it.”