Hopping the fence to sneak into the old Heymann Park pool as a kid, Parish Councilman AB Rubin got caught by park police. Decades later he still has a scar under his beard from nicking his cheek, and a parking lot has paved over the pool that was once a fixture of social life in Lafayette’s McComb-Veazey neighborhood. Smiling, Rubin recalled his mischief to dozens of masked community members rallying Sunday to keep the Heymann Park community center open, after that center and three others on Lafayette’s Northside were targeted for closure by Mayor-President Josh Guillory as a cost-saving measure.
“This is personal for me. I’m homegrown from McComb,” Rubin boasted to a roar. He pointed to a house beyond the leaning wooden fence where his mom used to live. For many in his audience, the park center is just a walk away, and it is more than just an amenity. “We are not in agreement with what’s going on,” he said. “Why just affect us?”
Offering few details, Guillory’s administration released follow-on justifications in the days after he announced the cuts, including laying off 37 parks employees, in a pre-recorded video address late Friday afternoon. Asked how much the cuts would save, interim Parks Director Frank Wittenberg said in an email to The Current he doesn’t know. “I will research that the best I can with the help from Accounting and provide an answer when it is available,” Wittenberg wrote in the response.
That means the savings are unknown heading into Tuesday’s council meeting, when park center supporters will present a petition and show up in force. And so too are the costs, advocates say.
Defending the decision against accusations of targeting the Black community, the administration countered in a press release Sunday afternoon that North Lafayette had a majority of park facilities but a minority of the population. In essence, the administration argued the cuts yielded a more equitable distribution of resources and wouldn’t demonstrably impact the aggrieved communities.
“The remaining north side facilities are more than adequate to fulfill the needs of our citizens in that area, and still have more convenient geographical access for residents than other centers in the parish,” Communications Director Jamie Angelle wrote in the Sunday press release.
Programs that use the closed centers will be shifted to other park centers, Wittenberg says. The therapeutic recreation program at Heymann Park will likely move to Girard Park, which he says “provides more space and access.” Other activities will move to the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center inside Dorsey Park. The Domingue also serves as a polling location. Wittenberg says it will be open for voting.
But closing the activity centers puts the residents who use them miles away from other facilities. And many of those residents, in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, don’t have cars. For example, the MLK center, while also on the Northside, is 3.5 miles away from McComb-Veazey and across the Evangeline Thruway. It’s closest to the LaPlace neighborhood served by the shuttered J. Carlton James Center. Still, LaPlace is 1 mile away, along Willow Street and across University from MLK.
Rates of vehicle access in those neighborhoods is among the lowest in the city. At least 27% of households in the census tract bounding LaPlace are without cars, according to data collected by the USDA to track food insecurity. Another 14% of households are carless around Heymann Park. This contrasts starkly with vehicle access in the neighborhoods that house the city’s other park centers. Girard Park is nestled among the campuses of Lafayette General Medical Center, UL and some of Lafayette’s most expensive homes. Fewer than 3% of households in that tract are without cars:
Glossing over access, advocates say, at best outlines the administration’s lack of awareness of the roles served by the closed centers or, at worst, puts on display a cynical political calculus by a white politician. Citing “low usage” at the centers in its Sunday press release, the administration couched the closures as budget discipline necessary to rein in overspending by the parks department. J. Carlton James, Bowles and Domingue each hosted 10 or fewer rental events each year, according to Wittenberg. Heymann Park hosts 58 events on average each year. The other sites, Wittenberg says, range from 18 to 66 rentals each year.
The city of Lafayette is in deep financial trouble, facing a growing operating deficit of millions in the current fiscal year that was already budgeted to tap into more than $10 million in reserves. Facility rentals generate about $175,000 across the system annually, according to budget documents. But on the whole, parks and recreation took several million dollars in operating subsidies from the city’s general fund.
Families in surrounding neighborhoods rely on the centers as community gathering points. Wedding receptions and family reunions are frequently booked there. Kids also go to after-school programs in some neighborhood centers. The Domingue center hosted a small faith-based tutoring program, Wittenberg says, but LCG is working on a solution to keep it going. Walkability is a need for many of those families.
“Now, we might not have 1,000 people in here every day, but that’s another economic barrier, because of access and transportation, and services and programs, that’s a whole different issue,” former Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux told the rally.
The administration is making damaging cuts without a plan, says ousted parks Director Gerald Boudreaux. A state senator and Kenneth’s brother, the elder Boudreaux chalks the mayor-president’s decision up to stubbornness and a lack of curiosity. Fixating on utilization numbers, he says, ignores how different parks and facilities complement each other. The Robicheaux Center might be popular, he says, but that’s because it has an indoor pool while the Heymann Park Center is home to the department’s therapeutic center for seniors and the disabled.
“You’re never going to be able to compare apples to apples,” Gerald says.
The senator, like his younger brother, spoke briefly Sunday afternoon, offering impromptu remarks when approached with a wireless mic by rally organizer Marja Broussard, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. He drew pointed contrasts to previous administrations — Joey Durel and Joel Robideaux — and their approach to governing.
“Those individuals had a vision for Lafayette, not a vision for Washington, D.C.,” he said, alluding to the wide opinion among Guillory’s opponents that the young, Republican mayor-president views his job as a stepping stone to higher office.
Community advocates fear losing the activity centers will cost the city in the long run. A key theme among speakers Sunday was the belief that the recreation centers have provided outlets for energies that might otherwise be put toward crime. Boudreaux points out that the park police unit itself would be scrapped and its duties passed along to an already burdened city police department under the Guillory administration plan. Again, the underlying theme is one of equity and how the administration appears to calculate value.
“The cost of incarceration and the cost of criminal acts in our homes and our business is going to go up” with continued gutting of resources like the park centers, Gerald Boudreaux says. “If you don’t pay for it on the front end, you’re going to pay for it on the back end.”