Local golfers have taken on a view of their home course that mirrors the way the former Adelphia golf dome looks: deflated.
Fee increases on the Hyde Park Golf Course are planned.
The condition of the 36-hole course has grown so bad that golfers complain of sharing the greens and fairways with weeds and tall grass.
A public-private partnership to run part of the course has withered.
As a new golf season is about to begin, Mayor Vince Anello and other city officials are looking to find ways to make the course self-sufficient.
Those who know the course best -- the golfers -- say city leaders have a lot of work to do.
"They're always talking about revenue," said 61-year-old Bill Evans, who 40 years ago learned how to play the game like most city residents -- on the Red Nine at Hyde Park. "But it's like any business. It's like a restaurant. If you have a pig pen or don't have decent food, people are not going to come. . .
"If you improve the conditions, then people can understand raising prices. When you look at the golf course, it's one of the few assets the city has and can make money off of," he said, if it's properly tended.
Hyde Park Golf Course is about to start the new season in the hole.
The Red Nine Golf Course will remain closed, the golf dome remains down and a legal battle is brewing between the city and a company city leaders gave a 20-year, no-bid contract to operate half the course, as well as the dome.
But with the new season comes new urgency.
The Common Council has agreed to launch a new advisory board to recommend course improvements, and Councilman Chris A. Robins plans to come to Monday's Council meeting armed with plans to roll back recently approved rate hikes.
Reducing the rate hike will be key, Falls resident and golfer Wayne Coram told Council members at a recent meeting.
"It's going to be a desert out there. . .," he predicted otherwise. "You're going to scare more people away than you're going to bring in."
The new golf course advisory board -- which includes golfers and city workers -- is set to meet for the first time at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Greens Restaurant on Hyde Park.
That board was formed with the help of Councilman Robins, who learned to play golf on the Hyde Park courses: the Red Nine, White Nine and North 18. He regularly peppers the city administration with questions about its operations and what's going on with the developer that was supposed to have revamped the Red Nine by now.
Robins wants to change the tide of negative thought about the golf course and get competitive with other municipal courses. He sees Hyde Park's niche as "an affordable, decent course."
Rate hike concerns will gain attention immediately. Robins will introduce a resolution at Monday's Council meeting to reduce many of the rate increases approved last year by the Council and Anello. Those changes split the sale of golf cart season passes -- formerly $400 for seven days -- into $400 for a weekday pass and $600 for a full-week pass.
Also, several types of season passes went up by $25; the "rider" fee on golf carts used by more than one person was doubled to $10; a "tee time" reservation fee was added to the season pass; and golfers said they were given a price sheet that stated sales tax would no longer be included in the cost.
If Robins' resolution is passed, it would do away with the tee time fee for season ticket holders, decrease the full-week seasonal pass to $500 and put the cart "rider" fee back to $5. Also, he said, the sales tax will remain part of the total fees charged. However, most season passes will still cost $25 more than they did last year.
Anello has pushed fee increases in the past year because he says the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money each year to keep the course running, and he wants to close the gap between operating costs and revenue.
Coram and other golfers said the city shouldn't consider raising any rates until the greens and management of the course improve.
Aside from the horrific looking conditions of the closed Red Nine and unattractive view of a deflated dome surrounded by a not-so-secure construction fence, the immediate problems that plague the White Nine and North 18 are the conditions of the greens, bunkers, irrigation and drainage. Many golfers also said if something is in bad shape on the North 18, it's likely to be in worse shape on the White Nine, which also used to be a nice nine-hole tract before losing its appeal from years of neglect.
Two years ago, the North 18 and White Nine went almost the whole season without fresh sand in the bunkers, Evans said. Last year, sand made a return to the course, but the process of aeration of the greens -- to keep them in good condition -- wasn't completely finished.
Golfers usually don't have to putt through weeds, but some said they did at Hyde Park last year. Several blamed it on the failure to complete the aeration procedure.
Standing water in fairways also has been a problem.
"Last year was the worst shape that course was ever in," said 34-year-old Joe Martin, who learned how to play 20 years ago on the Red Nine, when it was in impeccable shape. "The conditions were absolutely horrendous. You had to putt through weeds. . . . You couldn't really enforce the rules of golf. You had to constantly move your ball to give yourself a shot. You could literally lose your ball in the fairway because the grass was so thick because they didn't cut it. It was amazing.
"The price is OK, but for our money we just want to see them put the money back in the course. . . . We're not expecting a country club."
Coram said at the recent public meeting some golfers think the problem goes deeper than money.
"The work is not being done out there. The wrong decisions are being made," he told the Council. "Our greenskeeper is paid $50,000 and he's not doing his job. We have city employees who don't do anything. I know golfers of this city have seen it plenty of times."
Martin also maintained the staff isn't knowledgeable enough to run the course.
The course's new director John Caso vehemently disagreed. He said James Buchalski, city greenskeeper, has worked on the course for two decades, and scored high on the Civil Service groundskeeper test.
Caso said keeping up a golf course takes chemicals, money and manpower -- a combination the city hasn't maintained as well as it once did. He has held several management positions on the course under former city administrations, and said the city used to have 12 or 13 temporary workers to help with the greens during the summer season.
"We'll have about three this year," he said. "What happens is when you start losing manpower and cutting the chemical line back, it affects the outcome of your course."
The course has about a dozen full-time employees.
Caso said he plans to address many of the golfers' concerns this year by doing in-house drainage projects, aeration at the beginning and end of the season, and paying attention to the sand traps.
"This year you're going to see the greens a lot, lot better," he vowed.
New fairway cutters the course obtained last year, along with a more modern greens roller, did help improve the playability of the course some last year, according to numerous golfers. They said it's just a matter of staff regularly using the equipment.
Some golfers said they've been told there are plans for hiring a greenskeeping consultant to help Buchalski bring the putting surfaces back to life, but Caso would not elaborate.
Many new initiatives will be run by Marc Stott, a 23-year-old recreation specialist who became a seasonal employee as a teenager and is the new head supervisor.
Stott said he's met with Robins and they have a lot of new ideas on how to bring more revenue into the course in the hope that more laborers can be hired.
"I'm looking at advertisements and certain specials to generate more golfers and income for the golf course," said Stott, a Niagara University graduate. "I want to book more tournaments, more leagues and little things to generate more income."
Some other changes visitors could see include the driving range operated by the city for the first time in at least nine years; a listing in the phone book under golf courses; brochures to attract downtown tourists to use the course; and corporate sponsors for each hole, a practice abandoned years ago.
>Lease in doubt
Even if city workers are able to realize their goals for this season, they will be working against the backdrop of an unrealized development agreement that was supposed to transform half the golf course into a sportsman's dream.
The city entered into a 20-year, no-bid agreement with Greater Niagara Sports Group in June 2004. The controversial move transferred ownership of the outdoor driving range, former Adelphia Sports Complex -- renamed the Niagara Action Dome -- and Hyde Park's Red Nine to the company, which had been headquartered in the dome.
GNS has spent virtually nothing on the upkeep of its acquisitions. The dome fell under a heavy snow nearly a year ago and still hasn't been removed or repaired. The Red Nine was closed all last season. There are no indications that it will be open this year.
GNS was to have already spent $500,000 on capital improvements, upgraded the Red Nine course to meet United States Golf Association regulations, and paid the city a $50,000 developer's fee. If it had met those requirements, the company would have taken over operation of the White Nine in January, in time to prepare it for the start of this golf season.
The company blames a lawsuit, filed shortly after the agreement was made, for the lack of progress. GNS attorney Richard Sullivan said the company couldn't get lenders to loan money for a project that was in court, and the company didn't want to pursue improvements until the matter was resolved.
"Lenders became disinterested because of the lawsuit," GNS Executive Director Steve Trincanati told The Buffalo News last July. "We didn't want to invest because of the possibility [of being evicted]."
The resident golfers group claimed the deal was illegal because it was not publicly bid out or put before the City Planning Board for review. A state Supreme Court judge and, recently, a state appeals court in Rochester have upheld the city agreement as a legal document.
Now city attorneys aren't accepting the company's excuse for not fulfilling the terms of the agreement. This year the city filed a lawsuit against GNS seeking to get out of the agreement and be paid $75,500, which would include the late $50,000 fee, as well as $25,000 to reimburse the city for mowing the Red Nine last year.
Sullivan said his client wants to pursue the project and renegotiate the contract with the city.
All five City Council members say they want the developer to leave.
"Not having performed, I don't see why we would negotiate," Council Chairman Charles Walker said last week.
Anello, who presented the agreement to the Council, appears more forgiving about the situation.
"What happened was not their fault," he said. "My natural inclination is to try to be fair with everybody, so I would listen to their offer."
>Hopes for new board
Now golfers are pinning their hopes on the new advisory board. It will be the second such group formed by the city in two years. The first board was formed shortly after Anello took office in 2004 but became defunct after the GNS deal.
Golfers say if it's taken seriously it could mean Hyde Park could someday become as viable an asset to the Falls as the profitable public courses in the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda.
City officials in the Falls said they will take the board's advice seriously, and Robins said he believes the input is vital to becoming the customer-friendly, quality-of-life product he wants the course to become.
"I just hope they're not blowing smoke," Coram said. "We'll see what happens this year. . . . If they're doing the job they're supposed to do, I will praise them. I will go in front of the Council and thank them."