2015-01-23 / Front Page

City takes pitch shot with course

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It was 1974 and South Portland City Councilor Maxine Beecher was, she admits, a regular gadfly at municipal meetings when the city decided to get into the golf business.

“I went berserk, because I could think of so many better ways to spend that money,” she said.

South Portland’s nine-hole executive golf course was built in 1931 on farmland belonging to the family of golf pro Larry Rowe, who also designed the fairways at Cape Elizabeth’s Purpooduck Club. Rowe, inducted into Maine’s Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, operated the site for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 1970, when he sold it to Richard and Sally Flynn. They ran the course for a few years before trying to flip it to the city.

Beecher remembers how, after she objected publicly to the proposed purchase, then-city manager Ron Stewart called her into his office. Under such zoning as existed at the time, 150 houses could have been built on the 25-acre property, nestled between Westbrook Street, Westcott Road and Broadway. Stewart’s concern, said Beecher, was that if the city did not bite, the impact could have been astounding, should the land go instead to a private developer.

“One hundred and fifty houses at 2.5 kids per house — do you know what it’s going to cost to educate those kids?” Beecher recalls Stewart telling her. “This is cheap.”

Beecher agreed and soon withdrew her opposition.

Now, flash-forward another 40 years, and the future of the golf course is once again in flux.

At a Dec. 15 workshop of the South Portland City Council, Rick Towle, director of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront, and his recreation coordinator, Kevin Adams, introduced the concept of remaking the facility.

“Our objective is to become the top golf learning center in Southern Maine,” said Adams.

Last spring, with annual rounds played down to almost half of their 21,000 peak, and the course regularly running in the red on its $221,000 yearly operating budget, Towle secured $10,000 from the council as part of the FY 2015 capital improvement plan budget to create what he called a “transitional plan” for the course.

At that time, he also boosted fees $2 per day — a modest hike given fears of chasing users to other nearby courses. Still, it was a necessary move, given that the course had operated for many years more or less on inertia before Towle was hired in 2012.

“I found when I arrived in the city that there was no one overseeing the course,” said Towle. “There was no one directly [responsible] on a day-to-day basis. We went up on fees last year for the first time in eight or nine years to try and get closer to balancing our budget.”

However, before Towle had a chance to commission a plan for the course, he was contacted by the Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation, an offshoot of the Wadsworth Gold Constrution Company.

Based out of Middletown, Ohio, Wadsworth has built more than 800 golf courses nationwide since 1958. Its foundation aims to “improve society through the moral, ethical and cultural codes of golf.” To that end, it has given more than $4.5 million in grants since its creation in 1997.

According to Towle, the Wadsworth Foundation has offered to give South Portland up to $150,000 to redesign and renovate its golf course, with no local match required.

“At first I thought, there’s got to be a catch to this, but there is no catch. All they’re really looking for in return is recognition,” he said, noting that the city would only be required to post a sign acknowledging the Wadsworth gift.

According to Towle, Wadsworth would have its pre-approved architect submit to the city a list of recommended upgrades to the site, with the city free to pursue as many or as few as it chooses. While many of those ideas will include ways to remake the course as a teaching facility, others will undoubtedly call for overhauling its aging infrastructure.

“We know the architect is going to come back and tell us there are several things we are going to have to change,” said Towle. “Our irrigation system is just spines that go up the middle of the fairways. That’s not normal anymore. Our city manager [Jim Gailey] used to maintain that system when he worked for the rec department as a teenager, and it was old then.”

The idea of repurposing South Portland’s municipal golf course as a sort of startersite does seem to have promise, Towle said. According to Adams, the age of the average golfer nationwide is 48. At the South Portland course, it’s even higher, pushing the “upper 50s.” Also, in 2013, the city launched a “First Tee” program for young golfers. It drew 35 participants in its inaugural year, 53 last season, and, Adams said, 100 are expected to participate this year.

However, there are issues to contend with when taking kids out to practice on a course not designed for that purpose.

“We have to go out while golfers are on the course,” Adams said. “They get in two or three putts and then we have to get out of the way. We do as best we can to stay safe, but as golfers are, there are quite a few errant shots and we occasionally have to duck. We do have some safety issues.”

According to Towle, it’s not yet clear how the course might change to facilitate its intended new purpose.

“We have the nine holes, but we don’t have anything for anybody to be able to just go out and practice their golf game,” he said. “We might have to cut into the woods on [hole] one to put in a practice area, but it could lead to a complete overhaul of the course and some yardages could get changed. It would depend on whatever we come up with for a design.”

Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt, who fulfills Beecher’s old role as a regular audience member at council meetings, called South Portland’s golf course a “puny muni,” saying he suspected the site might be too small to accommodate much change.

“You’re pretty constrained as far as land, I think,” he said.

Towle acknowledged that one possibility might be for the nine-hole course to become a six-hole course, with three holes set aside for practice, rather than regular play. Whatever the ultimate direction, Gailey said the Wadsworth grant represents the best chance South Portland has to get its golf course out of the rough.

“This is a great opportunity and we’re just looking for a head nod from the council,” he said.

The council gave that nod, but suggested a general reluctance to invest much, if any, taxpayer money into the city golf course.

“I understand golf is in slow decline and you’re trying to tap into the youth,” Councilor Tom Blake said, “but this is a substantial change in the way we do business at the South Portland golf course.”

Blake said he was concerned the Wadsworth grant would not cover its complete punch-list, and that Towle could end up back before the council within a year or two looking for public money.

“I’m not looking to come back and say we need a halfmillion dollar bond to fix the golf course,” Towle said. “But it’s going to get to the point where we are going to need major expenditures if we don’t do anything, and I don’t want to manage by crisis.”

But Councilor Claude Morgan said upgrading the facility ultimately means increasing the cost for upkeep.

“If we’re adding value to the asset we have, we then have to preserve the asset,” he said, “Maintaining a golf course requires a lot of our energy and natural resources. My concern is that we will make something so precious that it will tax us down the road when we are in a tougher spot to maintain it, and then we’ll pull our hair out as we watch our asset crumble in front of us.”

“I support this in the short term but I have reservations in the long, long term as far as what this can do for our city,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “I’m not sure I want go down a path of spending more money, more money, more money, unless I see amazing results in terms of providing accessibility for everyone in our city, or all of a sudden golf is very popular and everybody is doing it.”

“I am not inclined to spend a whole lot of extra money at all,” said Beecher, expressing a fiscal opinion that, by her own admission, has not changed much since 1974.

It was left to Mayor Linda Cohen to suggest that, ultimately, Larry Rowe’s legacy could fade into history.

“At some point we may have to say this just isn’t working anymore, golf is going the way of . . . whatever. I don’t want to see us putting a lot of money into something we just can’t attract people to use,” she said.

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