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Extra: Golf Guide: The State of the Game

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Maybe Delaware’s license plate should be changed to read: “The Golfer’s State.”

Under provisions of the Open Space Program, part of the 1990 Delaware Land Protection Act, the state now owns two formerly privately held and popular golf courses. In July 2004, the state purchased Garrisons Lake, a long, leafy and narrow track that had been popular among Delaware’s public golfers. It had been a fixture in the Smyrna area since the 1970s.

Last year Delaware doubled its golf course holdings with the acquisition of the pristine and previously private MBNA Deerfield Golf Club. Going forward, we can only hope the state is demonstrating a continuing commitment to not only preserving green space, but also to providing continuing recreational opportunities for area golfers at affordable rates.

Delaware never planned to get into the golf course business, but community fallout over plans to turn Garrisons Lake into a tract of more then 400 homes captured the attention of the state’s political leadership.

It all began in early 2003, when community leaders led by Dover attorney Gary Dodge arranged a meeting with the property’s developer, New Castle County’s Blenheim Homes, and interested residents.

“We knew we were onto something when more than 400 people showed up for that meeting,” Dodge recalls, “and not just from our area, either. People from all over the state showed up.”

Following that meeting, Dodge and others formed CARE (Citizens Alliance for Responsible Expansion), an advocacy group whose goal was to prevent Blenheim from turning Garrisons Lake into a subdivision.

There was far less conflict over the purchase of Deerfield Golf Club, near Newark, where the state was able to purchase the club outright, without having to undo a deal that had been made with a developer. Deerfield was also much more within the scope of the state’s open space program because the property was contiguous to the Division of Parks and Recreation’s White Clay Creek State Park.

“Deerfield is nearly surrounded by White Clay Creek,” says parks and recreation director Charles A. Salkin. “We were always pleased that the course was a neighbor.”

Salkin was at first concerned that Deerfield might be turned over to developers. He was relieved when Governor Ruth Ann Minner took the lead to maintain the course as open space.

The state ultimately paid $12 million for the land and the improvements at Deerfield. An additional $1.5 million was loaned to the Division of Parks and Recreation to fund purchase of equipment for the golf course and renovations to the clubhouse.

According to Salkin, Deerfield will be operated the same way as all the other parks in the system.

“They are all cost centers in that there is no net revenue, and that none of the parks receives subsidies from any other park in the system,” says Salkin.

Though Deerfield is unique among Delaware’s state parks, the parcel is typical of the size of properties the state usually acquires. “We’ve built the system from hundreds of parcels like the 140 acres at Deerfield and the 160 at Garrisons Lake,” says Salkin.

But the Garrisons Lake story has a bit of the “Erin Brockovich” social-action drama attached to it, especially since there was already a deal in place for the golf course to become a housing development. CARE’s primary strategy was to sustain community emotion through periodic announcements on the group’s progress.

“Every three or four months we published a new development regarding Garrisons,” says Dodge. “One time it was the release of a traffic study we had contracted that showed there would be a need for significant road construction to support the development. Another time, we had a story published that suggested the owners of parcels of contiguous property to the golf course might consider constructing a pig farm on the land.”

According to Dodge, the governor’s office reported that it had received more comment on the Garrisons Lake development than anything else in Minner’s first term, including the smoking ban.

Whether the pig farm story was the clincher or not, the state’s political leadership threw its support behind the community. DelDOT became involved, not the Division of Parks and Recreation, primarily due to CARE’s traffic study.

“DelDOT told us there was money available for the agency to purchase land under the open space program,”

Finally, the developer decided to meet with all the relevant parties to discuss their withdrawal from the planned development. “Blenheim should receive some credit for agreeing to walk away from what was going to be a profitable venture,” Dodge says.

After DelDOT’s purchase of Garrisons Lake, the parcel was turned over to Parks and Recreation. In 2006 the state provided $4 million to cover the costs of restoring Garrisons Lake to a modern golf facility. That will include needed refurbishments to the course—which has been in neglect since its closing was announced in 2003—a new irrigation system, and renovations to the pro shop and parking lot.

Dodge believes pool renovations will probably not happen under the current funding plan. The thinking now is that Garrisons Lake could be open for play in 2008.

When that happens, one of the longest, narrowest tracks in the state will present all golfers with the challenge of hitting it straight and away from some of the stateliest wooded areas around. Originally playing at over 7,000 yards from the tips, Garrisons features a collection of par-3s that can stretch to over 200 yards, and a collection of par-4s, the shortest of which is 370 yards, with eight stretching more than 400 yards. Bring your big-headed titanium when this baby reopens.

What about the future for Delaware and golf business? Our state’s small size may be a benefit when it comes to getting out in front of the opportunities that hit the market.

According to Ron Vickers, land preservation office manager for the Division of Parks and Recreation, however, there are no current plans to seek additional golf properties to preserve as open space. That means plans to sell a nine-hole course that is currently part of Delaware National and previously reported plans to develop Newark Country Club (moving the golf club to a new facility to be built just over the state line in Maryland) will probably continue to go forward as developments.

So don’t order those new license plates just yet. Do, however, grab your clubs and prepare to enjoy the return of one of Delaware’s best remembered public golf facilities, and the preservation of another once-private jewel into the Delaware parks system. 

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