Friday, April 4, 2008

Putting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 15, 2007

Putting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

West Hartford’s venture into the mini-golf business annoys the skatekids

By Jennifer Abel

Despite golf’s reputation as a rich man’s game, it’s downright proletarian in Connecticut. Town governments throughout the state own and subsidize courses. Even working-class cities like Waterbury and Norwich sport municipal golf facilities, so it’s no surprise a wealthy town like West Hartford does too: two in fact, the course at Rockledge and the course at Buena Vista.

No, a city golf course isn’t bragworthy in Connecticut. But West Hartford’s about to join a more exclusive circle, though "exclusive" might be the wrong word for a mini-golf course, which the city intends to build at the Buena Vista complex.

Subsidized mini-golf courses are nowhere near as common as their more couth cousins; only Stratford has one, at its Gulls Landing park. So how’s that working out? The course is closed for the season, but according to The Putting Penguin, an online "unofficial guide to miniature golf courses," it’s a shabby example of the genus Minigolfus made tolerable by its low admission price.

"The carpets are very worn and definitely need to be replaced," says the site’s review. "The water hazards also need to be cleaned … the bricks that line the course are loose." If Gulls Landing is any indication, the difference between a publicly and privately owned mini-golf course is like that between the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls.

Mini golf. The phrase inspires visions of sticky children hitting balls into the mouths of clowns or between rotating windmill blades. And (no slight intended against the many fine people in the miniature-golf industry) it could even be said that involvement in the business demeans the majesty of government, somehow.

But West Hartford’s course will be completely tasteful, says Jim Capodiece, the city’s director of leisure services.

"The intention is to fit it into the environment, not to make it a circus type of course," he said. Capodiece can’t yet predict when the course will be complete; the city is currently "regarding conceptual plans" with a course designer.

To call these publicly owned golf courses "subsidized" isn’t entirely accurate. As Capodiece said, "Buena Vista golf course [covers its] operating costs. … Some years the golf course runs a little on the positive side, some years a little negative." (The current rates for a nine-hole game vary from nine or ten dollars for city residents to twelve or thirteen for out-of-towners.)

Capodiece and the city say the mini-golf addition would be a wonderful recreational opportunity for families, and they’re almost certainly right. But would it improve the current status quo? Not everyone says yes. City resident Ed Lennig thinks that replacing any part of Buena Vista’s current set-up with a mini-golf course would be a loss.

"[Buena Vista] is one of the best family courses around," Lennig said in a phone interview. "A good training course if you’re teaching your kids how to play the game." He credits Buena Vista’s family friendliness to its small size. It’s a nine-hole course, only half the standard 18 where, Lennig says, "if someone can’t play well it takes them forever to play through … a kid learning to play might swing at the ball a few times and when he finally hits it, it only goes five yards."

The loss of a great training course: one potential reason to oppose the city’s future mini-golf proposal. But there’s another (even ignoring any possible "government-owned mini-golf" concerns): there’s plenty of wholesome family stuff to do in West Hartford already. Some say the course’s estimated $300,000 cost could be better spent appealing to other age groups. Like maybe teenagers. With an interest in skateboarding.

Chau Pham, a junior at Hall High School, discussed in an e-mail the mini-golf course and other developments going on in town. "It seems as though these developments are directed more toward either older or younger generations," he wrote.

Pham belongs to Build Us A Skatepark, a local lobbying group that hasn’t quite got around to lobbying the city yet but has been gathering members on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

"As of right now, it’s just kind of a collection of people," says the group’s teenage leader and founder, Devin Castaldi-Micca. "We haven’t actually begun lobbying or thinking about it."
The group’s members are frustrated by the lack of legal places to skate in the city. So where do they skate? "Pretty much all over, anywhere there’s asphalt," said Castaldi-Micca. "The Center, but you get kicked out in five minutes. … Sometimes they even call the police."

Pham said such a park would benefit not only skateboarders, but the rest of the town as well. "The town itself would be free of teenagers just barely skimming the law to catch a good ride and we would not have to be so fearful of being punished for just carrying our skateboards in a high-traffic area."

Although the group hasn’t formally petitioned the city yet, Capodiece was nonetheless aware of their concerns. "We’ve heard from a variety of youth groups who want a skatepark … one group came forward about six months ago, and we told them about the processes necessary to request this, but we haven’t heard back from them since."

The city’s not averse to the idea of a skatepark, Capodiece says. "I believe there may be some discussion in this year’s budget to take capital improvements money to build a skatepark … it depends on how much money other groups can raise. I don’t think you’ll see the town pay the entire bill, unless we get a grant."

So why pay the cost of a mini-golf course? "A mini-golf course would be a revenue producer; a skatepark wouldn’t."