Park or golf course?
While the debate over the future of Nine Springs Golf Course has attracted strong opinions for the past seven months, the city’s official discussion of whether to keep its golf course hasn’t even begun.
The process began two years ago at a Committee of the Whole meeting, after the city stopped making money from the course and instead had to begin paying course manager Sam Schultz $20,000 each year to manage it.
“Once that happened, the council then asked for a thorough examination for what are the best uses for that golf course,” Mayor Shawn Pfaff told the Fitchburg Star.
The project took a significant step forward last June, when the Common Council asked the park commission to create an alternative park plan to have in case it decided a park would be a better use than the current golf course.
Since then, there have been three public meetings, a public hearing and two surveys, which all were supposed to focus on the alternative plan itself, not the greater debate of golf course vs. park.
But, not surprisingly to city Parks, Recreation and Forestry director Scott Endl, much of the feedback at those meetings asked the city to keep the nine-hole golf course that the city first acquired in 1986.
“There’s golfers that are passionate about it,” Endl said.
Those golfers have made their presence known at each meeting, expressing distaste for the idea of losing what Schultz, the course manager, called a “phenomenal asset.”
“I think it’d just be a loss of a real treasure,” Schultz, who also serves as the course’s head golf pro, told the Star. “It is truly an excellent little golf course.”
Endl said he has also noticed that a number of people who submitted forms, but chose not to speak, at the March 6 public hearing were in favor of the park plan.
“The verbal people are for the golf course and the non-verbal people are for the park,” Endl said.
Denise Maddox, who lives on Post Road in the neighborhood around the course and has been part of completing a “Health Impact Assessment” for the county public health department on the golf course vs. park debate, said she’s heard excitement from neighbors over a possible park.
“The community gravitates to the park,” Maddox said, pointing to the many meetings she and others have had with those in the surrounding area.
Either way, it’s a decision that is likely to affect Fitchburg, and specifically the North Fish Hatchery Road area, for decades to come.
“It’s a very important issue,” Pfaff said. “I am sympathetic to the golfers … and I know that they have every right to be heard. We want to make sure there was an exhaustive process so that people who don’t regularly go to city council meetings have a chance to be heard.”
If the council ultimately chooses the park alternative plan, the 33-acre park would fill what is currently a 22-acre deficit in the city’s “area parks.”
Area parks are expected to serve a half-mile radius, larger than neighborhood parks but smaller than community parks. The city, in its comprehensive parks plan, set out a minimum requirement of 93.68 acres of area parks, but is only at 71.28.
Ald. Jason Gonzales (Dist. 3) expressed at the March 6 public hearing that the 22-acre number was important to consider.
“It was insightful to learn that 22 acres is how deficient this is compared to the rest of the city,” Gonzales said. “I just didn’t realize that’s how much land is missing there.”
Schultz maintains, however, that Leopold Park and other nearby recreation areas provide enough park space, while the golf course is unique and comes at a cheaper cost than others in the area.
“It helps the people because they’re playing golf,” he said. “Golf is a game that teaches you things that many other sports don’t because it’s a singular sport.
“I’ve never seen a bad kid grow up on a golf course.”
But some have questioned whether the golf course truly serves children or adults in the nearby area, which has a high poverty rate.
Maddox said her group has heard from people that if it stays a golf course, “they want it to be more accessible for the community,” whether that means more programs, a lower cost or changing its use during the winter months.
Schultz and others who support it remaining a golf course have also expressed concerns about issues from storm water drainage to the safety of a potential park, which would open in 2015 if the council were to choose the alternative plan.
“Unless there is supervision, unless there is really ongoing activities with people involved a park by itself, especially in a neighborhood like that where there is a tremendous number of kids at risk … they’re going to have nothing but problems,” Schultz said.
Maddox, however, expressed skepticism over safety concerns, and emphasized that she and those in the community care about what’s in their neighborhood and will do what’s necessary to keep it safe whether it’s a park or continues as a golf course.
“Because we’re low-income don’t mean we don’t care about neighborhoods and what happens,” Maddox said.
Costs both ways
Neither plan is going to come cheap.
Documents from the Park Commission estimate that over 20 years, choosing the park plan alternative would cost $835,500, with the bulk of that total coming from infrastructure and buildings, plus an additional $49,222 in annual operating costs with programming and maintenance.
The documents also estimate the annual revenue from recreation programs, park shelter use, concession sales, equipment rental and special event fees between $10,000 and $14,000.
Altogether, that means a pricetag of about $1.6 million, or $80,000 per year.
But if alders choose to keep the golf course, Endl said renovations are likely and Pfaff said the city would look to find a way to avoid the $20,000 per year price tag.
“If it stays a golf course, then what would make the golf course become more profitable where the city would not have to put in $20,000?” Pfaff said.
Schultz, however, has been the only bidder with the city to manage the golf course in recent years, leaving uncertainty if he were to decide against continuing his management duties.
Endl said the departments are still in the process of finalizing all of the above numbers, and he stressed that they are only preliminary, though they will be finalized before a final decision is made.
Regardless, Nine Springs will remain a golf course at least through the summer of 2014.
The Common Council is likely to take up the ultimate decision at its May 13 council meeting.
Between now and then, there are still plenty of chances for the public to have its voice heard.
First will be the March 18 Plan Commission meeting, where the commission will look at the alternative plan.
Next, the Common Council will take its first look at the alternative plan as well as the option to maintain the golf course on March 25.
At that meeting, the council will also finalize the survey questions the city will post online, as well as a version that will be in the April Fitchburg Star. Endl hopes residents will send in their responses to give the Common Council an accurate measure of where constituents stand before its May 13 meeting.
While the survey is open, from April 11-30, the Health Impact Assessment group, including Maddox, will present what it has learned at a Committee of the Whole meeting April 23.
Maddox said her group has talked with people in the neighborhood, police officers, golfers and environmental experts, among others, while gathering facts to present to the council.
“We’re not for or against (either plan),” Maddox said. “We’re there to give them information so they can make the right decision for the environment and the people around the golf course.”
The Park Commission will then likely have the opportunity May 1 to take a final look at the golf course plan and its park plan and possibly offer a recommendation to the council.
Finally, the council is expected to make its decision a week and a half later on May 13.
Pfaff pointed out that he will only vote as a tiebreaker.
“It’s a very interesting choice that the council has to make,” he said.