Long-awaited recreation center opens in Gretna

When Gretna Councilman Vincent Cox III pushed for a new $5 million multipurpose center in a city with slightly fewer than 18,000 residents, questions were raised about the size and price tag of the building.

Later, when the cost of the building ballooned to $5.8 million, those same concerns were raised again, and the project was delayed. But Cox fought every attempt to scale back the project, and now the city is celebrating the grand opening of the 22,000 square-foot building. Given the current economic climate, and Gretna’s own tight budget, the project represents a massive investment of city resources. Cox says it’s well worth it.

“I was pushing that for all of the kids in Gretna,” Cox said. “I’m extremely pleased with the outcome. It’s as good as could be expected.”

The Mel Ott Recreation Center is easily the most expensive publicly owned structure in Gretna. Perched on the corner of Gretna Boulevard and Belle Chasse Highway, it dominates the playground named after Gretna’s most famous athlete. The building is designed to host basketball and volleyball tournaments but also will be used for aerobics and dance classes, along with meetings for community groups, according to city officials.

Councilman Wayne Rau said that while the city had to slice some amenities to get the project done, it’s still an impressive building for a city of Gretna’s size. It will provide residents of all ages with a place to gather and have fun for generations, he said.

“I think it’s quite an accomplishment for the city as a whole to be able to put up a first class, state-of-the art facility,” Rau said.

The complex is certainly an improvement from the city’s decrepit Dick White Center, which was seriously damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Cox remembers that facility as lacking basic amenities like toilets and air conditioning. He called it a shameful place for the city’s children to play and fought against the idea of refurbishing it instead of borrowing millions to pay for the multi-purpose center.

“It was embarrassing,” Cox said of the former facility.

Rau and Cox agreed that children need quality recreational opportunities, and Cox noted that communities like Terrytown and Marrero have quality gymnasiums for children to use.

Gretna children didn’t have that opportunity, he said, and that meant it wasn’t serving its children properly.

“I think recreation gives a lot,” said Rau, who has coached children in the city’s parks. “I think people want a place for their children to be able to avail themselves of recreation.”

In order to afford the center, Gretna had to borrow $9 million through a bond issue that officials got approved by voters by tying it to the troubled wastewater treatment plant and recreation. Normally, the recreation money might have been spent on projects in each individual council district, but Cox pushed for one massive project like the multipurpose center.

When Gretna saw a boom in sales tax revenue after Hurricane Katrina, Cox pushed to set aside $1 million to get the project started. He committed his discretionary funds and fought off a plan to remove money from the project when the problems at the sewer plant were discovered to be more dire than expected.

Although the recreation center is in Councilwoman Raylyn Beevers district, Cox has been its biggest supporter, which means that if the center fails to find tenants or become a drain on he city’s finances, the blame will fall on him. He says he’s not worried because he believes the project is viable and something residents truly want. He noted that people have already started signing up to use the facility.

“I always feel like recreation is a big part of what we do in the city,” Cox said.