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Intriguing proposal for Delaware, South parks gets a boost from the involvement of Jack Nicklaus

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus is offering Buffalo a gift that other cities would walk through fire to get. This is an opportunity that Buffalo should not simply welcome, but chase.

Nicklaus, approached by civic activist Kevin Gaughan, signed on to the opportunity to combine his name and expertise with that of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Nicklaus, golf’s “Golden Bear,” has a Florida company that designs highly regarded golf courses. Gaughan, known mainly for his work on regionalism, hatched the idea that Nicklaus might be tempted into redesigning the courses that were unadvisedly overlaid on Olmsted’s Delaware and South parks.

In Delaware Park, a not-very-good golf course takes over the meadow, putting it out of reach of other users. Nicklaus’ idea is to redesign the golf course, turning it into one that could attract visitors, while taking up less space on the meadow.

Even more intriguing is his plan for South Park, where a golf course was built at the expense of the world-class arboretum designed by Olmsted. That idea taps into another passion of Nicklaus, whose South Florida home features about 100 varieties of trees and shrubs.

The plan for South Park is to build a golf course on adjacent private property and to restore the arboretum, a plan that excites at least one local expert.

“It’s a great proposal,” said David Colligan, former chairman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “I am convinced Buffalo could have the second best arboretum in the country and certainly the second best designed by Olmsted, with the original layout and planting plan designed by Olmsted himself.”

Alone, these plans are all but irresistible, but adding to them is the proposal to raise all the money privately, sparing taxpayers any of the not-insignificant costs, which are estimated at $40 million and include an educational center and a maintenance fund.

Here’s the question that must be asked of the decision-makers in City Hall and the conservancy: Why not? Or at least, why not examine it closely? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair terrible mistakes that have obscured Olmsted’s vision for Buffalo while creating value that could attract new users and new revenues. And to do it without cost to taxpayers.

Some people don’t want the Delaware Park golf course to change, but the course is old and the plot of land small for its 18 holes. Nicklaus could replace that with a smaller but better course that more people would take pleasure in playing. What golfer wouldn’t want to test himself on a golf course designed by Nicklaus?

Others want the golf courses gone, altogether. Certainly, neither should ever have been built on Olmsted parkland, but the fact is that the Delaware Park course, in particular, is popular with city residents, including many whose incomes don’t allow them to play at more expensive courses.

As a practical matter, it is clear that the golf course is going to remain in some form. Why not a new form that returns some of the meadow to other park users while creating a more professional and attractive golf course on a smaller footprint?

There seems to be nothing calling for the immediate rejection of this proposal, so let the discussion begin. It’s possible that some in civic leadership or in the conservancy don’t like the idea of an “outsider” – Gaughan – thrusting an idea on them that they had no role in producing, but they need to look past that subjective issue to the greater public good that this plan can achieve.

This is a great opportunity for Buffalo, and Buffalo should chase it for all it is worth, whatever hazards may lay ahead.