Nature Center supporters counting on city to start overhaul

Volunteers hoping to help revitalize a once-thriving area might not have known where to go Saturday morning except for a handwritten sign on a 99-cent piece of white poster board.

On the fringe of an unkept wooded area, the directions said to turn off Dwyer Road and head 1,000 feet down a narrow, one-way rocky trail as thick green brush jetted out seemingly from everywhere.

In the middle of these woods in New Orleans East was a small parking lot in front of an old, large green shed, and a few steps down a wooden path exposed even more evidence something actually did exist back here.

In fact, the Audubon Nature Center once was a lively spot where groups of school-aged children often visited. It was where all sorts of animals, including colorful birds, turtles, snakes and even bugs lived among the beautiful, well-kept forestry as part of an exhibit that opened inside of Joe W. Brown Memorial Park in 1980.

This is what the people who have gathered early on a warm, cloudy Saturday morning want to keep alive.

Originally known as the Louisiana Nature Center, the 86 acres of land were all but destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. And what the winds of the storm didn’t ravage, the 8 to 10 feet of saltwater finished off.

Since then, people who love the Nature Center have patiently — and sometimes not-so-patiently — waited for it to be cleaned up and reopened like so many other attractions in the city that had been destroyed by Katrina’s wrath. They have come every so often to clear some of the debris from different areas. Sometimes volunteer student groups from across the country come down and assist in the project.

Meanwhile, those closest to the Nature Center hope the money FEMA promised is delivered to help rebuild. The $7.6 million remains in control of the state’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, supposedly ready to go toward Phase One of a four-step process of reconstruction.

Partners in this initiative are the city of New Orleans, which runs Joe W. Brown Park, and the Audubon Commission, which oversees the Nature Center. They say work will begin soon. New Orleans City Councilman James Gray told his constituents on April 9 construction is scheduled to go out for bid in July and begin in late August. The city says it will use $25 million from a collection of FEMA money, city bonds and private funding from the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Drew Brees Dream Foundation and others to overhaul the park and Nature Center.

In the meantime, the possibility of losing FEMA money is looming. A nine-page report written in January by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended to FEMA that it “disallow” the awarding of $7.6 million because the approved projects “are not the (Audubon) Commission’s legal responsibility, which federal regulations require to be eligible for funding.”

Bob Thomas ran the Nature Center from its initial concept in 1978 to 1994. Now a professor of mass communications and director for environmental communication at Loyola University, he said that he hopes the center is “re-established as one of the nation’s leading nature centers.”

While he is hopeful, he wouldn’t say he is confident. And for it to happen, he said the Audubon Commission and the city would need to “rebuild world-class buildings that are used to determine how nature works.

“And then they’d need to lure a nationally leading group of nationalists and educators who know how to penetrate a community with environmental knowledge that is important for the citizens of the community to make decisions about the future.”

FEMA has not yet withdrawn the money, and both the city and Audubon Institute say they are taking the necessary steps to make sure work begins as they have promised. According to Ryan Berni, communications director for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, “ownership issues and the way FEMA works, there has to be more clarity about transferring (project worksheets),” and “things can get confusing when there are multiple government agencies involved.”

City officials insist that they are following the necessary procedures and have the wherewithal to get going. The Billes Partners architectural group has been hired and has drawn plans for a new main building, which is the largest piece of Phase 1.

“We have made it clear to everyone involved that this really needs to happen and it needs to happen quickly,” said Gray, who is the fourth person to represent District E on the City Council since 2010. “We think we have made great progress, and we think construction should begin in August.”

Tangee Wall, who is a community activist and executive director of Friends of Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, believes her councilman. Since 2006, she has heard all the promises and plans for the property, which is “too beautiful and too environmentally necessary” to be left abandoned. This time, she said she “is feeling something positive.”

“There is a mandate that we do this, and that we do this quickly,” she said. “Money has been set aside for this project shouldn’t have taken this long to be spent; that’s a fact. Be that as it may, it’s 2013, we’re here, and it’s time to get going. There have been no real good excuses, and there certainly aren’t any moving further. … I’m looking for it, and I expect it, but seeing is believing.”