It all began with an email.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in August 2005, Charlie Yates Jr. — an Atlanta philanthropist and an executive at the time for Zurich Insurance Group, title sponsor of the PGA Tour stop in New Orleans — reached out to Mike Rodrigue, a former tournament chairman of the Zurich Classic. Yates invited Rodrigue to bring a group to see the urban revitalization project nested next to East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the home course for Bobby Jones, the first golfer to complete golf’s Grand Slam, in 1930.
A few months later, Rodrigue toured East Lake’s surrounding community with Gerry Barousse Jr., a real estate developer and banker, and Gary Solomon, a venture capitalist. They marveled at the effort, which was spearheaded by Tom Cousins, a real estate developer who built the CNN Center and helped bring N.B.A. and N.H.L. teams to Atlanta.
In 1995, Cousins bought East Lake Golf Club out of receivership and established the East Lake Foundation. He partnered with the City of Atlanta to raze East Lake Meadows, a troubled 650-unit public housing complex, and build the Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income community. A charter school, a Y.M.C.A. and a nine-hole public golf course soon followed.
Proceeds from hosting the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club are funneled back to the foundation for community programs. The effect on the neighborhood can be measured in a drastic reduction in crime, high employment rates, and improved academic scores and high school graduation rates.
On the trip home to New Orleans, Rodrigue’s group debated whether the East Lake model could be replicated in New Orleans.
A larger debate brewed over the future of public housing in New Orleans, a subject fraught with charges of gentrification and discrimination. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had more than 7,000 public housing units.
Rodrigue grew up in Gentilly, a neighborhood that was a half a mile north of the St. Bernard projects, and recognized the similarities to the East Lake project. His parents forbade him from stepping foot in St. Bernard, one of the most dangerous areas in the city. Instead, he was dropped off every day at City Park, the 1,300-acre park just to the west of St. Bernard, and he played golf.
Rodrigue dreamed of City Park having a championship course, but it lacked the resources to build one. Hurricane Katrina…