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IN DELAWARE PARK, GOLF'S FUTURE IS AS UNCERTAIN AS ITS FAIRWAYS

Delaware Park Golf Course might be the only 18-hole layout in the country where a duffer can plunk a jogger, cyclist, rugby player, outfielder, soccer player, passing car or parked snowplow.

And if somebody really selects the wrong club and crushes one, he might rouse a buffalo in the zoo.

In that sense, it's unique.

For decades, the park has been a recreational retreat for city dwellers and a destination for suburban residents, and a very cluttered one. On any given summer day, you can find somebody flying a kite who wishes the high-handicap golfers invading his turf would go do the same. Then again, at least golfers pay for their space, or so they say.

So who has ownership of Delaware Park?

That's the question before Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which last July assumed control over six Buffalo parks and three city golf courses, including Cazenovia and South Park. Officials will spend the summer observing the parks and the way they do business in hopes of finding a way to balance sports and leisure before making a recommendation to the city.

Among the first items on the agenda is deciding what the future holds for golf in Delaware Park. The choices:

Maintain the 18-hole golf course.

Cut it down to nine redesigned holes.

Or dump the course entirely, restoring some 120 acres to people who want to spend afternoons relaxing under the sun without dodging Titleists.

The long-term future of the course may be unclear, but changes are certain in the coming months. Delaware Park golf officially opened April 23. The conservancy already has decided to close the course the first Sunday of every month starting today, giving back one-third of the park's space to the non-golfing public in hopes of gauging how it should be used.

"We wanted to test the waters," said Deborah Trimble, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy. "We consider golf a program like any other sports program that's in the park, which means there needs to be balance with other community interests and needs. We're saying, Let's take that day per month and see what happens. Does the community really use it, or is nobody in the meadow on first Sundays?"

Come autumn, they should know. Already, the lines are being draw between preservationists and golfers.

18 holes or nine?

Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the city's parks system, once praised Buffalo for being "the best planned city in America." Olmsted knew the city well. Planning never has been a problem in Buffalo. Many would suggest that carrying out plans, however, has been an entirely different story.

Buffalo's park and parkway system is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The conservancy is looking to succeed where the city failed. It wants the parks to be as close to self-sufficient as possible while restoring what Olmsted had in mind before Delaware opened in 1871, when it was a pasture.

Eighteen holes, nine or none? It depends whom you ask.

"My personal opinion, and I'm a golfer, is that you could probably make a better nine-hole course than what you have there as an 18-hole course," City Public Works Commissioner Joseph Giambra said. "The course runs all over the place. The holes have been butchered through the years. You're teeing off and hitting over some soccer players. I would rather see a nine-hole course.

"As commissioner, we'll look to do what the citizens want."

"It would be a shame to reduce Delaware Park from 18 holes to nine," said Fred Hartrick, president of the Buffalo District Golf Association. "Some people comment about giving it back to the common folk. It's the common folk who play there. It would be a shame for them to take it back. I'm not even sure what they would do with it, make it a horticulture flower exhibit of some kind? Who knows?"

Trimble said the conservancy, a not-for-profit agency, is modeling itself after a group that rescued Manhattan's Central Park, another Olmsted masterpiece that was largely abandoned and in disrepair during the 1980s.

Drawing scrutiny

The conservancy wants to know whether it can justify keeping the three city public golf courses, all of which are financial losers. Others argue they contribute to Buffalo's quality of life.

"Ideally, I would like to see another city 18-hole course and get that out of Delaware Park, so that other people can use that part of the park," said Margery Miller, a lawyer and longtime member of the Delaware Park Steering Committee, a citizens advisory group. "At this point, virtually the entire meadow is consumed by golf course. They play there year round. Any time you're on the meadow, you're going at your own risk. I don't think that's right."

Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland golf courses, which are owned and maintained by Erie County, each collected between 45,000 and 50,000 greens fees last year. Elma charges $12 to $15 a round with resident card, while Grover gets $10 to $12 with the card.

Delaware Park, which charges $7 to $12 a round for city residents, collected about 18,000 greens fees, including people who purchased the season pass. Cazenovia collected the most fees among the three city courses, South Park the fewest.

Cazenovia and South Park are nine holes, but they do not pose the same problems seen at Delaware. Delaware is the lone 18-hole city course and figures to draw the most scrutiny this summer because there golf interferes with other activities. Baseball players and golfers frequently intersect. Rugby and soccer matches are also within firing range.

Delaware's sixth and seventh holes, for example, sit along the Scajaquada Expressway and a busy area for walkers, runners and roller-bladers. Errant shots have been known to fly past them, across the busy expressway and travel into a garage area where the city streets departments stores its snowplows.

"They could chop it down to nine holes and make it better, but I don't think they should eliminate it," said Angelo Tomasello, who was raised in North Buffalo and grew up playing at Delaware Park. "You do see a lot of stray shots. I've hit one or two on the expressway myself. There aren't a lot of good golfers here."

Many golfers enjoy Delaware Park because it's centrally located, wide open and inexpensive. A season pass for the three courses is only $160 for Buffalo residents ($285 for non-residents), which is considered a bargain.

But they also get what they pay for in this haven for hackers.

Keeping 18 holes does allow players to maintain a golfing handicap. Still, maintaining 18 holes anywhere can be pricey. It might not attract enough players to offset costs.

"Golf is a whole other kettle of fish," Erie County Parks Commissioner Andy Sedita said. "It's not like you get on a lawnmower and start cutting grass. It's not like it was 30 years ago. If I had my druthers and had anything to say about it, I would try to make it a nice nine-hole course. The setting warrants that, the economics warrant that. To take it away completely, I don't think it's a great idea."

A move to nine holes is gaining momentum, but it's certain to be resisted by the golfing community. Already, the county parks department has received more than 100 calls from golfers who were angry about having the first Sunday of the month taken away.

"They need golf courses like that where people can play and they don't have to spend a lot of money," said Amos Chavers, president of the Delaware Nationals men's club and a volunteer who promotes golf in the inner city.

"You can take your kids out or your wife or girlfriends, you can have a decent round. If they take it to nine holes, it's going to be a disaster. It's a neighborhood park. It's all it's ever been, and it's all it will ever be."

Delaware Park doesn't attract as many golfers as other area public courses, because it hasn't been kept in very good shape. Most courses require a full-time superintendent and committed staff. And that's where Delaware meets its biggest hurdle.

To maintain the upkeep, it needs more money. More money usually means higher greens fees, which would be difficult to collect from Delaware, given the conditions.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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