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Golf legend Jack Nicklaus offers to redesign Delaware Park course

Jack Nicklaus, the retired golfing great, wants to redesign golf courses for two of Buffalo’s Frederick Law Olmsted parks.

His Nicklaus Design, based in North Palm Beach, Fla., has offered to build two destination-caliber golf courses, one a smaller footprint in Delaware Park and the other a nine-hole course on a privately owned parcel near South Park.

The plan addresses two goals Olmsted fans embrace: returning more of the Delaware Park meadow to its natural state and restoring Olmsted’s neglected vision for a South Park Arboretum by removing the golf course. Kevin Gaughan, a community activist, is behind the plan.

“Kevin’s idea to combine our course design work with Buffalo’s efforts to restore its Olmsted legacy is innovative,” Nicklaus said in a statement to The Buffalo News. “And placing a golf course in an inner-city setting is exciting, and hopefully will be the same for the residents of Buffalo. I’m very happy to play any role, great or small, to help make the project succeed.”

The plan includes building an education center to serve inner-city youth, triggered by Delaware Park’s status as a racial melting pot for golf.

The course designs also would add landscape for winter recreation, such as cross-country ski trails and sled runs.

The project will cost an estimated $40 million, which Gaughan said would be raised through private foundations and individuals.

A spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown said the mayor only recently received the proposal and wasn’t ready to comment.

Kevin Kelly, chairman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, said the organization also recently received the proposal and hasn’t had a chance to properly review it.

“We would advance this with prudence and care,” Kelly said.

But David Colligan, who chaired the organization from 2008 to 2010, was excited by the project’s possibilities.

“It’s a great proposal,” Colligan said. “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,” Colligan said. He placed Boston’s Arnold Arboretum ahead of South Park’s potential one.

The plan also drew praise from Francis R. Kowsky, author of “The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System.”

“In my opinion, anything that would restore South Park to more like its original condition would be a positive result for the citizens of the city,” Kowsky said. “They could have free access to the parkland the way it was designed to be.”

Kowsky also applauded the intent to provide the non-golfing public with more access to the Delaware Park meadow.

“Why not Buffalo?”

Gaughan said he got the idea of reaching out to Nicklaus Design in February 2014 while running around Delaware Park and thinking about the disparity between public and private golf courses.

“That’s when I thought of my brother, who works for Nicklaus Design in Moscow, telling me these stories of great courses overseas,” Gaughan said of his older brother, Vincent. “I thought, ‘Why not Buffalo?’ ”

Vincent Gaughan arranged for a meeting with Nicklaus, his younger brother said.

But first, Kevin Gaughan proposed his idea in a letter to the golf legend.

“My idea is that you, the world’s finest golf course designer, collaborate with Olmsted, the world’s foremost landscape architect, to create a public space for the benefit of all,” Gaughan wrote.

The proposal appealed to Nicklaus, nicknamed the “Golden Bear” in his playing days and the holder of the most major golf tournament championships. He has personally designed 290 courses in 41 countries, with 45 more under development. Seventy have been ranked by major industry publications, including Golf Digest and Travel & Leisure Golf, on Top 100 lists.

Gaughan met with Nicklaus last month in Florida, where Nicklaus expressed his enthusiasm for and commitment to the project.

John Reese, the company’s CEO, who attended the meeting, said Nicklaus liked the idea of redesigning the golf course – built in 1930 inside the 376-acre Delaware Park – because it was in an Olmsted-designed park and used by inner-city residents.

Nicklaus also found being part of a solution to restore Olmsted’s Arboretum in South Park appealing because it’s an interest of his, Reese said. He has about 100 different varieties of trees and shrubs at his South Florida home.

“He lit up on that idea,” Reese said. “Olmsted is a very renowned architect in the golf world. His ideas were unbelievably unique and ahead of his time.”

Olmsted designed the 155-acre South Park in 1894 as an arboretum with more than 2,300 types of trees, shrubs and plants, but only remnants of his vision remained after the golf course, which takes up about one-third of the park, was installed in 1915.

Reese said another factor in Nicklaus’ interest was his close personal friendship with Jeremy Jacobs, the Delaware North chairman whose home grounds in East Aurora were designed by Olmsted.

Reese also has an affinity for Buffalo.

“I was downtown walking around the lake, and I thought ‘This is a great place,’ ” Reese said of an excursion around Hoyt Lake. “I know the city is trying to come back. Being someone from New York for many years and seeing what’s going on in Buffalo, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something that helps Buffalo?’ And I think that’s Jack’s view, too.”

Hefty price tag

Reconstructing the Delaware Park golf course would cost $4 million, Gaughan estimated, and $10 million would be needed to build the South Buffalo course.

About $4 million would be needed to restore the Arboretum, he said.

The plan also calls for $10 million, including construction and curriculum costs, for the education center at a location to be determined.

Gaughan said another $12 million would be sought for a perpetual trust, with the interest paying for the annual operation and maintenance of the golf courses and the education center’s maintenance and programming costs.

Nicklaus Design officials are willing to help raise funds, and the United States Golf Association has offered support, Gaughan said.

“As for your work to obtain project financing, and your plan to seek both private sector and foundation funds, I want to reiterate our willingness to render any assistance we can to make this project come to pass,” Reese said in a June 9 letter to Gaughan. “Both Jack and our firm possess relationships with several national philanthropic organizations. We are pleased to employ those relationships on behalf of this worthy endeavor.”

Reese also suggested the courses could charge higher green fees for non-Buffalo residents and out-of-state golfers, boosting revenues needed to maintain the courses.

Gaughan doesn’t want the fees for Buffalo residents to go up.

“We’re excited to do this,” Reese said. “The Nicklaus companies want to work with everyone to get this done as efficiently as possible.”

Inner-city golf

Golf courses inside Olmsted parks have been a source of controversy.

Golfers, especially those who can’t afford private courses, appreciate the chance to tee up. But many want the parks restored as Olmsted imagined them, without golf.

With that in mind, Gaughan said he thought about moving the Delaware Park course, frequently used by African-Americans, to an East Side location but he couldn’t find a suitable site. Gaughan also found that many black golfers he spoke with had a deep affection for the Delaware Park site.

“It’s the golf course for everybody,” golfer Kane Cook said on a recent day while hitting some balls.

He and several other golfers expressed excitement over the possibility of Nicklaus redesigning the course.

“I would think that would be great,” Tony Smith said. “He could truly make this an exciting place. I’d even be out here helping him,” Smith laughed.

Wayne Geist, who lives near the park, said the idea of a Nicklaus-designed course was “fascinating.”

Kelly Funderburk, after using a 7-iron to hit a ball into the wind on the par-3 seventh hole, went further.

“If that were to happen, it would be a miracle, especially if the prices were to stay the same,” Funderburk said.

“It would be phenomenal because I’ve golfed at a couple of his courses.”

South Buffalo site

The site eyed for the South Buffalo golf course is a brownfield on Hopkins Street adjacent to South Park.

The 201 acres include landfills, wetlands, slopes and railroad tracks, reducing the usable area for golf to 62 acres, according to a “South Buffalo Golf Course Feasibility Study” prepared in 2014 for the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Reese said Nicklaus designed a course in the Bronx, known as Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, on a former landfill without trees. Chris Cochran, the company’s senior designer, visited the South Buffalo site and thought it had considerable potential, he said.

Cochran was also enthusiastic about Delaware Park.

“He just loved the layout,” Reese said.

“We get plenty of opportunities to do golf courses that are successful on the coasts and up in the mountains for very wealthy people,” Reese said. “It’s pretty neat to do a golf course in a city that everyone can use and is open to everyone.”

Educational component

Gaughan sees providing educational and job opportunities to minority youth as a key part of the project.

The education center is envisioned as a collaboration with the Buffalo Public School District and the University at Buffalo to instruct inner-city youth and provide job training in botany, land restoration, water reclamation, horticulture and conservation.

Reese said the educational component also appealed to Nicklaus.

“That stuff is really attractive to Jack, to me, to everyone in our company,” Reese said. “If you get 100 to 200 people young people involved each year that weren’t before, that’s a great thing to do.”

Colligan said he was “thrilled” at the prospect of an education center being tied into a restored arboretum, which he said would be “a learning laboratory and entry point for youth to learn about the sciences.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com