Two Makes Fore!

Hole on the range: The possible site of a new city golf course.
Mark A. Manger

Give the city of Denver credit for trying. After failing for ten years to build a golf course at Green Valley Ranch, it's pondering a new course on a rugged but bare stretch of land off of Peña Boulevard near Denver International Airport.

The only catch is that the Green Valley location, near the corner of East 48th Avenue and Tower Road, is now being built by a residential development company and is only a few miles from DIA. Needless to say, some people are wondering whether two courses so close together will both be able to make the cut.

Airport officials don't sound worried. "I think they'll be different products," says Jerry Kanter, of the city's Department of Aviation. "The DIA course will be more expensive."

In addition, the proposed course, part of DIA's five-year Strategic Business Plan, would increase revenues for the airport and defray costs to air carriers and passengers, airport officials believe. (DIA would join Dallas/ Fort Worth International Airport and Salt Lake City International Airport as the only major U.S. airports to have their very own golf courses.) Construction would be funded by an as-yet- unnamed private company. DIA would lease the land and water and would more than likely enter into some revenue-sharing deal with the company.

Ten developers responded to an initial query the airport put out earlier this year. Kanter thinks a more detailed request for proposals might be ready in July. As it stands now, the course would be built on land that the airport owns immediately adjacent to Peña Boulevard between 56th and 72nd avenues. Also, it likely would be rustic in style, which means that other than greens and fairways, the prairie land would remain. A hotel may go along with the course as well.

Opinions about the project vary. "I would think a golf course along Peña Boulevard, especially in the area with the big trees where the trailer park used to be, would be an excellent location," says John Edwards, editor of the Colorado Golfer newspaper. "It sure beats the idea of grazing buffalo that the city had been tossing about."

Kipp Steinauer, co-chair of Denver's citizen Golf Advisory Committee, is less enthusiastic. "It's out in the boondocks. It's noisy. It doesn't seem like a great location," he says. "Who's going to play it?"

Denver City Auditor Don Mares has the same question. In a May 17 letter to Bruce Baumgartner, manager of the city's Department of Aviation, he wrote: "Common sense suggested to me that having a golf course built on the north end of Peña Boulevard at DIA and having a golf course built on the south end of Peña Boulevard in Green Valley Ranch would probably result in both courses operating in the red."

He went on to quote a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that states that, despite appearances, there has been no real increase in the number of golfers playing nationwide between 1988 and today.

Baumgartner responded with a letter on May 25, saying that if the DIA course were coupled with a "destination hotel/conference center," the greens fees would run between $50 and $100 -- more expensive than Green Valley -- meaning that the two courses would cater to separate clientele.

"Someone who's traveling on a business trip is not thinking like a weekend hacker, adds the city's Kanter. "They'll put it on the card. If it's a business expense, it's a business expense."

But it's not just Denver that's building courses east and north of town. In the years since the bond was passed in 1989, numerous courses have opened in the northeast metro area, including Thornton, Commerce City and Brighton. And later this summer, Aurora will open the Murphy Creek course at E-470 and Jewell Street, which will be, like the airport links, rustic in flavor. "It should look and feel like it's a hundred years old," says Dennis Lyon, Aurora's manager of golf.

Lyon doesn't worry about the competition from the two potential Denver courses. He says the rounds played so far this year in Aurora are up over last year. But he adds that "at some point you're going to saturate. I don't know what that point is. At whatever point you reach saturation, the best operators will prosper and the ones that don't will suffer." (Lyon hired a full-time marketer in 1996 to make sure the Aurora courses didn't get left behind.)

Ed Mate, executive director of the Colorado Golf Association, points out that area courses close to each other perform well. But, then again, he says, those are older, established courses that aren't paying off debt. "I would have my doubts about how well these courses could do," he says.

While the airport prepares its request for proposals, there are still unresolved issues surrounding the Green Valley course, however. The city initially made a deal with the Stacey Hart Group in 1996, which offered to build Green Valley if the city would turn over the lucrative concession license at the Evergreen golf course to the company. The city agreed, but not long after the ink had dried, Stacey Hart, of the Stacey Hart Group, sold 99.5 percent of his company to Family Golf, Incorporated, a national golf-course management company ("A Long Shot," December 23, 1999). Hart had had concession deals with two other Denver courses, and these were also handed over to Family Golf.

The long-delayed project appeared to be a go last year. Oakwood Homes, the developer at Green Valley, would deed land it owned to the city to build the course, and Family Golf would select the contractor and run the course when it was finished, but ground needed to be broken by the fall or else the deal was off. When Family Golf filed for bankruptcy last summer, the project was delayed again. Oakwood Homes took its land back and bounced the city out of the project.

Pat Hamill, owner of Oakwood Homes, sounds perplexed by the proposed airport course. "I think it's a little bit of inconsistent public policy," he says. "We worked extremely hard to get one public course for Green Valley Ranch, which is now under construction, and the city had a very difficult time trying to pull that off. And then to come up and do another course that competes is somewhat frustrating."

The Green Valley course is scheduled to open next summer, and Hamill is optimistic it will successfully meet public need in that part of town. Though the land has been re-deeded to a quasi-governmental special district in the city of Denver, Hamill refused to take the city's $2.5 million in bond money to prevent further delays. "I made a commitment that that course was going to be put in. I had to take control," he says.

Since that money won't be used for the golf course, however, two ideas have emerged about how to spend it, though the Denver City Council has yet to consider the matter. According to co-chair John Conway, Denver's citizen Golf Advisory Committee drafted a resolution a few months back pressing the city to use the funds for capital improvements at other city courses. On the other hand, city councilwoman Happy Haynes, in whose district Green Valley lies, says that most likely the money will go to other parks and rec projects in the Green Valley area.

"There were a whole host of them that were originally part of the bond issue package, some of which did not get funded, some which are underfunded," Haynes says. Given the debacle of the golf course, that's not surprising.

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