06/09/2013 06:56 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

Public, private funds revive 1940s-era recreation center in New Orleans

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the June 10, 2013 issue.)

Last week, New Orleans reopened the John P. Lyons Memorial Center in the Irish Channel with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, city bonds, Chevron and the National Football League Foundation. The structure on Louisiana Ave. at Tchoupitoulas dates back to the late 1940s but was shut for nearly eight years after roof damage from Katrina created a moldly mess. The pool has been open every summer since that 2005 hurricane, however.

Young Audiences of Louisiana, or YALA, on Baronne St. last week launched a two-month youth camp at Lyons--teaching visual and performing arts, combined with science, technology, engineering and math. Jon Cosper, YALA's director of after-school and summer programs, said recreation centers are needed. "Some of our schools don't have arts programs," he said. "That's because of budget cuts and because schools that are failing are focused on improving standardized test scores." The Lyons Center fills a gap, he said.

Others cited a demand for summer sports. Last Monday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Council members opened the $4.9 million center and thanked its donors. The mayor cut a ceremonial ribbon, shot a few hoops in the gym and jumped into the pool with young swimmers. The Lyons Center is one of over fifty capital projects that the city hopes to finish this year after completing two dozen last year.

The Lyons facility, across from the Mississippi River's Harmony Street Wharf, has a new roof; a freshly-laid gym floor with a wood stage and repaired bleachers; a dance studio; a computer lab; several classrooms; a commissary; a new air-cooling system and plumbing fixtures; and an updated, historic pool. FEMA provided $2.2 million for the renovation.

Mayor Landrieu said the center will help kids stay focused on the future and off the streets. Last week at Lyons, summer was off to the races. Lyons Center manager Jolene Jeff said "school's out now so our current programs are mostly for kids and teens. Programs here will be for all ages, however. Starting this fall, we'll have more adult and senior activities."

Inside the building's atrium, a door and windows open onto a mirrored, 3,000 square-foot dance studio, with bleachers--funded by $115,000 from Chevron. Last week, teenage dancers whirled around the floor in a Chevron Master Artists Series workshop. Jeff pointed out a New Orleans Ballet Association office next to the studio.

Across the atrium, a door opens into a computer classroom, paid for with $100,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from the NFL Foundation. Last week, the room had chairs but was waiting for equipment.

Three activity rooms, used by YALA and others this summer, are lined up in a hall behind the main desk. They were full of kids and instructors last Tuesday. Down the central corridor is the gleaming gym, where a YALA class was in progress. Nearby is a commissary, used for breakfast and lunch this summer. The center's interior is awash in a color that the painters call "curry," Jeff said. She said it's always been one of her favorites.

Outside are the pool, a playground and a baseball field. Richard Hunter, senior lifeguard at Lyons, last week said the center's 75-foot pool dates back to the Works Progress Administration in the 1940s. "This pool is 2 1/2 to 9 feet deep and a dinosaur," he said, but meant that in a good way. Because of insurance concerns, "you rarely see a public pool this deep anywhere in the country now." To avoid accidents, diving boards at Lyons were removed after Katrina and replaced with a lifeguard stand. The pool had three manned stands last Tuesday.

This June and July, the pool's mornings will be devoted to NORDC day camp and individual swim classes. "We have one-on-one instruction every day this summer by appointment," Hunter said. "Swimming is a life skill that parents want their kids to have. Lives were lost in Katrina because people couldn't swim."

The Lyons pool serves a range of Irish Channel and Lower Garden District residents. "On Tuesday, we have Kingsley House from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,'" Hunter said. "On Monday, it's Trinity Episcopal School from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m." Kingsley House, serving families for 117 years, is on Constance St., and 53-year-old Trinity is nearby on Jackson Ave.

Hunter blew his whistle at a few swimmers last Tuesday, and assisted others, including a boy who felt ill that afternoon. Curious parents stopped by with their kids to inspect the pool and ask about hours. One youngster accompanied by his dad wanted to jump in immediately.

Adult swimming lessons and water aerobics are late in the day Monday to Friday. The pool has round-the-clock security, mainly to prevent kids from jumping over the fence after hours.

One thing the pool lacks is shade. Hunter said "we can't put up temporary canopies because of wind off the river. The lifeguard chairs blow into the pool in high winds. We tell everyone to wear sunscreen and bring a hat."

Kara Morgan, president of the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association, said last week "our group, along with the Faubourg Delachaise Neighborhood Association and the Lyons-Burke Booster Club, are raising money for permanent shade at the Lyons pool--something bolted down, like the shade at the Jewish Community Center" on St. Charles at Jefferson. She said it's a goal for next summer.

Morgan said the last eight years at the Lyons Center mirror the pace of the city's post-Katrina recovery. "After ups and downs, Lyons is where it should be now," she said. One setback was a $300,000 theft of copper tubes and wiring in April 2009. "Hearsay is that the two vandals caught by the police lived in the building for awhile that spring," Morgan said.

Cosper said "squatting, and public and private building robberies were a problem for several years after Katrina. It was a challenge to patrol and secure buildings."

In January 2008, the Brees Dream Foundation--founded by Brittany and Drew Brees--opened the Lyons Center playground with the Allstate Foundation in Illinois and the Injury Free Coalition for Kids in New York. Last week, children scaled the playground's equipment.

Neighbors take their kids and dogs to the Lyons Center baseball field, Morgan said, but she added "it still needs some work."

The new Lyons Center was designed by Wayne Troyer Architects in New Orleans and renovated by Ryan Gootee General Contractors in Metairie, along with a number of local, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise or DBE contractors.

Meanwhile, NORDC is trying to maintain services after federal cuts that include a loss of $700,000 in Community Development Block Grants this year from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. NORDC's shift to a public-private commission in 2010 has helped it weather government slashes. The commission continues to line up private money through the NORD Foundation, its fund-raising arm, and has made some operational changes. NORDC's budget is $9.5 million this year, versus $10.2 million last year, but more than double its size in 2010.

According to NORDC, the commission has raised $1.86 million in private funds since 2010 for capital projects. Part of that was through a Super Bowl Legacy program, assisting five parks and centers, including Lyons. The city hosted Super Bowl XLVII this past Feb. 3. Another $1.17 million in private funds since 2010 came from the Chevron Teen Futures Program, Fit NOLA Parks and other groups for NORDC operations, programs and specific needs.

For aquatics alone, NORDC was given $90,000 by local construction firm Boh Brothers and $25,000 by the Metairie-based Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation. The Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross funds year-round swimming lessons and lifeguard training under NORDC's direction.

One way NORDC adjusted to the lost CDBG funds was to truncate the summer swim season to June and July since many city schools now start in early August. NORDC has opened 13 public pools this summer, the most since Katrina, and is running 35 youth camps--six more than last year. The commission has seven camps for teens this summer.

NORD, formed in 1946 under Mayor Chep Morrison Sr., was considered a model for recreation programs across the nation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later, the city's publicly funded R and R took some hits. In a statement last week, NORDC chief Vic Richards said the new Lyons Center is a symbol of the commission's progress in its quest to become one of the country's best recreation departments.

The Lyons Center is named after slain World War II soldier John P. Lyons. -end-