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Nicklaus golf course in South Buffalo? Land buy shifts Olmsted parks fight

For years, civic advocate Kevin Gaughan has been on a quest to build a signature golf course in Buffalo that would allow the parks system to remove its course at South Park and restore an arboretum designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

There was a catch: He didn't own the land where he envisioned his $42 million project.

On Thursday, Gaughan signed a purchase agreement on behalf of Nicklaus Olmsted Buffalo Inc., a not-for-profit organization, to buy 107 acres next to South Park, taking a significant step toward his dream of turning the former industrial site into a signature golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

The project, if completed, could aid the biggest transformation within the Olmsted park system in decades. It would also fulfill a key part of the Olmsted Parks master plan that calls for removing the golf course from South Park and restoring the arboretum.

The land purchase is a critical step, but there are many more to go for the project to occur.

Gaughan must raise millions from private foundations and individuals. He will also need the support of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and the City of Buffalo.

Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus believes Gaughan has hit a hole-in-one.

"I'm happy to learn that Kevin has purchased the land that we hope one day to be home to a new Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course for the good people of Buffalo," Nicklaus, who is based in North Palm Beach, Fla., said in a statement.

But the Olmsted conservancy, which expressed early support for the project, no longer does now that Gaughan has purchased the land.

Chairman Dennis R. Horrigan was traveling on Friday and unavailable for comment, according to Stephanie Crockatt, the conservancy's executive director. But a statement she issued said Gaughan's plan is now outside the conservancy's "scope."

"The opportunity  posed by Mr. Gaughan and his partners is commendable, as the reclamation of a brownfield site with a new signature facility reflects a gold star for South Buffalo," Crockatt said.

"The Conservancy's scope, however, as validated by our contractual partnership with the City of Buffalo is solely on Olmsted's six parks, seven parkways and eight circles," she said. "As such, a venture that falls outside that scope – as is the case  of a proposed Nicklaus golf course on non-Olmsted parkland – is not something our organization can partner on with Mr. Gaughan."

Crockatt's statement indicated support for an arboretum restoration plan developed by one of the conservancy's committees.

Kevin Gaughan takes in the view from a 107-acre plot of land on the former Republic Steel site in South Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Restoring the arboretum at South Park and removing the golf course has long been a goal of the conservancy. The conservancy, along with the City of Buffalo initiated a 2014 "South Buffalo Golf Course Feasibility Study" for the purpose of determining whether moving the golf course to the adjacent site was possible, which it was concluded could be done.

The conservancy's statement also, notably, does not include an expression of support for having Nicklaus design golf courses in Delaware Park and in South Buffalo.

The conservancy's current position contrasts with a letter sent by Crockatt and then-Chairman Kevin Kelly to Gaughan in December 2016.

In that letter, they wrote that Gaughan's plan was "consistent with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservatory's master plan and mission." The letter, in listing the components of Gaughan's plan, includes "engaging Nicklaus Companies to develop and design a public golf course adjacent to South Park, as independent of the BOPC."

Gaughan's plan calls for creating an educational and vocational center for inner-city youth in golf course management, botany, water reclamation, horticulture and land restoration. His plan also includes having Nicklaus redesign the Delaware Park golf course while reducing its footprint.

"I'm thrilled to report we're one large step closer to creating a wonderful public space for our city and its residents," said Gaughan, who began working on his plan in 2014. He said it's his hope that the conservancy will collaborate with him.

"Having accomplished my goal of securing this land, I'm now going to again ask our conservancy to work together toward our shared goal of strengthening our Olmsted lands," Gaughan said. "I think that's in the best interest of our city, our Olmsted lands and most importantly, city residents who cherish our public spaces."

Gaughan said the support he seeks from the conservancy has never included partnering on the golf course.

Gaughan's charitable organization has purchased a 107-acre plot of land on the former Republic Steel site in South Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The land for the golf course is bordered by south side of South Park, Tifft Nature Preserve to the north, Hopkins Road to the east and railroad yard to the west. A golf course designer for Nicklaus Design saw the site about two years ago and concluded it was well-suited for a golf course.

"When I toured the South Buffalo parcel Kevin plans for a Nicklaus-designed golf course, I was struck by its beauty, industrial heritage features and sweeping views of Buffalo," said Chris Cochran, senior design associate for Nicklaus Design.

"Kevin's land holds great potential to become one of America's most unique golf courses," Cochran said.

Gaughan, senior counsel at HoganWillig, met Nicklaus through his late brother Vincent Gaughan, who worked for Nicklaus in Moscow.

"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 told him.

The proposal appealed to Nicklaus, who has designed nearly 300 golf courses in some 41 countries.

The land was put up for sale as 13 separate, contiguous parcels by Richard Palumbo, who owned he land that is now SolarCity, and Steelfields, Ltd. The sale price was $650,000.

The rolling meadow was once owned by Republic Steel. Slag, a byproduct of steel production, was buried there decades ago. Regular inspections by the state Department of Environmental Conservation have come back negative, Gaughan said.

John Reese, CEO of Nicklaus Companies, visited the Conservancy in September 2016 to express support for Gaughan's plan. The company has also agreed to do the work on the golf courses at cost.

Gaughan is seeking the conservancy's support to raise local funds as a way to leverage fundraising from philanthropies and foundations. But Crockatt said that's not something the conservancy is willing to do.

"The conservancy has different fundraising priorities with multiple projects for almost every park in the system," Crockatt said. "Any donations that would be going to Mr. Gaughan and his partners would not be going to the conservancy. We don't want donors to be confused on these fundraising initiatives by backing his plan."

Gaughan's plan has received the backing of some Olmsted notables, including Francis R. Kowsky, a local Olmsted scholar and the author of "The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System."

Lucy Lawliss, who chairs the National Association for Olmsted Parks, applauded Gaughan's acquisition.

"We hope Kevin's purchase will advance the long-sought goal to relocate the South Park golf course and bolster the Buffalo Conservancy's efforts to rehabilitate Olmsted's jewel, the South Park arboretum," Lawliss said.

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