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Editorial: Olmsted Conservancy, city should embrace opportunity to partner with Nicklaus

The Olmsted Conservancy says it thinks Kevin Gaughan’s idea has real merit, but there are just so many hurdles to overcome. Mayor Byron W. Brown will have a say. The conservancy has no appropriate role in building a golf course outside park property. Gaughan needs to produce more specifics. Will local golfers be able to afford a round at the courses Gaughan has in mind?

None of these concerns is illegitimate, but taken together suggest that the conservancy is keeping at arm’s length a project that could be a game-changer for Buffalo. It needs to embrace the idea as its own.

More than three years ago, Gaughan, a longtime community activist, came up with a winner of an idea. Working with famed golfer Jack Nicklaus, whose company designs golf courses, Gaughan has proposed a multi-faceted project in which:

• Nicklaus would design two new golf courses for Buffalo, one by shrinking and improving the golf course that now takes up too much of Delaware Park; the other by building a new one near South Park, allowing the golf course there to be eliminated.

• The arboretum planned by parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted at South Park would be restored.

• An education center for inner-city youths would be established.

What is more, Nicklaus is willing – eager, it would seem – to provide his services at cost. It’s the definition of irresistible. Whether it can all work is, at this point, unknown, but here’s what is known: The chances will vastly improve if the conservancy, the city and Gaughan collaborate to overcome the obstacles and deliver a unique asset to a deserving city.

As it stands, though, the conservancy’s interest seems tepid, at best. Its approach puts all of the onus on Gaughan. Given that it was his idea, that would not be objectionable in most circumstances. But this circumstance is different: The proposal would add significant value to Buffalo and its Olmsted parks and serve as a magnet to golfers elsewhere. What is more, the conservancy acknowledges the merit of the idea.

It’s not that the conservancy isn’t working hard, already. It is developing its own plan to restore the Olmsted arboretum. It maintains the parks beautifully. It is committed to preserving Olmsted’s vision, which can serve the city for generations to come.

But things can be better. The idea for the Nicklaus golf course in Delaware Park would restore much of the park’s meadow to a group now unwelcome: non-golfers. It would do so by shrinking – not eliminating – the golf course in favor of one designed by one of the sport’s legends.

In South Park, it would do even more – eliminating the golf course there in favor of a Nicklaus-designed course nearby, while re-establishing the arboretum. What is more, an influential friend of Gaughan – former Goldman Sachs President John L. Thornton – increasing the likelihood that wealthy donors around the country would be delighted to contribute to such a project, as long as they first see signs of local commitment.

Given that, the residents of Buffalo – the people who use the parks and who would benefit from this proposal – have a right to expect that the parties will work together to make this happen. It’s not going to be enough to sit back and hope it goes away.

If there are issues regarding local fundraising, as the conservancy says, it should be actively working with Gaughan and others to resolve them. If there are issues in finding land for a new golf course, or securing permission to shrink the Delaware Park golf course, than all parties – including the Brown administration – should be collaborating to overcome any obstacles. The same goes for concerns that a Nicklaus-designed course would be affordable to the people who now use the inexpensive facilities in Delaware and South parks.

All large projects are complicated, usually more than anyone understands going in. That’s the way of things, and no reason to back away. This idea will bring something special to Buffalo. It needs the support of all who can make a difference.

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