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CITY COVETS IDLE GOLF SITE FOR DEVELOPMENT

More than a year after Tee to Green Golf Parks was hit with fraud charges, its driving range in North Buffalo sits idle and tied up in bankruptcy court -- to the dismay of development proponents who think the cleared land could help swing a redevelopment of the rustbound area.

"If there was a way to get the property reused, that would be an opportunity for the city," said Alan S. Delisle, president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's development arm.

The 18-acre site off Tonawanda Street, bordered by the Scajaquada Expressway, is one of the largest pieces of open property in the city, real estate experts said. A study last year laid out a plan for redevelopment of the surrounding area, whose underused rail lines and industrial tracts lie near the Peace Bridge and major highways.

"In order to make that (redevelopment) more probable, we would need to assemble parcels of land," said Al DeBenedetti, whose 6th District encompasses the Black Rock neighborhood. But the legal tangle surrounding the golf park appears likely to drag on, keeping the greens off the market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's 13-month old lawsuit continues against the company and its officials, Steven and Susan Blumhagen. The agency is in an evidence-gathering phase, with a trial probably several months away, associate regional director Mark Schonfeld said.

The SEC says the Blumhagens duped 350 investors out of $12 million with sales of fraudulent promissory notes in Ohio, North Carolina and four other states. Through attorneys, president Steven Blumhagen has denied wrongdoing.

The company's golf park in the Black Rock area, which opened in 1998, was the first and only completed site of what was to be a chain of urban golf centers. An oasis of green surrounded by industrial decay, the driving range failed to reopen this spring after being put under the care of a bankruptcy trustee.

Now, some people are taking a look at the site, and not because they're trying to decide on a wood or an iron.

"Three or four attorneys have called me for clients (with) some interest in the property," bankruptcy trustee William E. Lawson said. "One even suggested a price." He wouldn't repeat the figure, which he described as a low-ball offer.

Tee to Green paid over $1 million for the former Pratt & Letchworth foundry site -- assessed by the city at $760,000 -- and spent an unknown amount to clear and prepare the land.

"I don't know what it's worth now," Lawson said.

Before the property can be resold, Lawson must assess its value and investigate the validity of mortgages against it. If the claims are valid, Lawson said he would turn the land over to the creditors for foreclosure -- likely putting it back on the market.

But a dispute over the property's debts seems likely. Among the claims against the property is a $2.1 million second mortgage held by Donald W. Owens, an Ohio insurance salesman who sold Tee to Green's notes and who is accused of participating in the Blumhagens' alleged scheme.

"We may have some litigation on this," Lawson said.

In April, bankruptcy judge Michael J. Kaplan turned down a request by the primary mortgage holder, Abadon Revocable Trust, to allow foreclosure on the property.

A study last year funded by DeBenedetti cited the development potential of the area, dubbed the "Tonawanda Street Corridor." CSX Corp. and Sherwin Williams own unused or underused land, which could be combined with the city's former auto impound yard and other properties, the study said.

Carolyn Murray of Hunt Commercial Real Estate said she was looking into the Tee to Green property for a potential buyer, although not as a candidate for commercial redevelopment.

"It's a big site," surrounded by other little-used property, she said.

Since the study, the former Westwood-Squibb research labs on Forest Avenue at the south end of the redevelopment area has been designated as a life-sciences research facility. That, and a push in Albany to create a new class of bio-tech development zones, have heightened speculation about the prospects for new industry locating in the Tonawanda Street Corridor, real estate sources said.

But even if redevelopment is a long shot, simply getting the land open again for sport use would be better than letting it sit idle under the bankruptcy padlock, neighborhood representatives said.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. said he's heard of interest from city soccer players in the site as a sports venue. "Getting it open again would be good -- whatever gets it back on the tax rolls," he said.

Even as a golfing park, a reopened Tee to Green could help other parts of the industrial corridor find new life, DeBenedetti said. "It could be a very nice attraction," he said.

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