The Austin Chronicle

Keeping the Golf Division Weird

By Nick Barbaro, April 13, 2012, News

There seems to be a growing consensus between city staff and neighbors that the Hancock Golf Course should and will remain just that – a golf course – while the Parks and Recreation Department installs a new reclaimed water system and takes various other steps to improve conditions there – both physical and financial.

When last we left this story back in Dec­em­ber, the PARD golf division was canvassing Hancock neighbors and the public for their feelings about the tract. Hancock is a golf course in trouble, was PARD's message: The number of rounds played there is down by almost two-thirds over the last decade, meaning that Han­cock is losing a significant amount of money for the golf division (a city enterprise fund, unlike the rest of PARD). Moreover, between declining revenues and the recent drought, course conditions have deteriorated significantly as well, which means no one wants to play there, which ... well, you can see the downward spiral.

So, PARD wondered, what do the course's neighbors think about the situation? Are they attached to having a golf course there, or might some other use – frisbee golf? dog park? soccer fields? – be equally attractive, while getting the property off the golf divi­sion's debit sheet? Commercial development remains off the table; it would take voter approval for the city to sell, lease, or "otherwise encumber" this dedicated parkland.

Now, after a number of community engagement meetings and presentations, what PARD has heard, with a surprising amount of consensus, is that neighbors very much want the golf course ("even though I don't golf myself," several have said) – for its history, its youth programs, and its natural beauty, and because there's little doubt it'll get better maintenance under the wing of the golf division's enterprise fund than it would if it were cut loose into the population of PARD properties maintained with General Fund tax monies. The two neighborhood associations that have brought up the matter officially at meetings, Hancock and Hyde Park, have voted on resolutions endorsing the course's continuing operation.

And in return, PARD – which was met with considerable skepticism going into the process – has already come back to the table with several pieces of good news and a promising game plan.

First off, armed with the neighbors' determination to improve course conditions, PARD has negotiated for Austin Water to front the money for a new reclaimed-water irrigation system, tapping into the line running down Red River Street. The estimated $500,000 re-piping expense will save $60,000 a year in water costs while providing more nutrients for the landscaping, PARD's Kevin Gomillion told an HPNA meeting Monday night; work should begin in late summer and be completed without the course having to close down at any time. There are tentative plans as well for a significant tree-planting along the west edge of the course, essentially replacing a section of trees controversially removed by the city a few years back. Gomillion notes that this ties in with the new irrigation system, which can be built specifically to support the current and future trees.

Earlier that same day, PARD Assistant Director Kimberly McNeeley sent out a memo to stakeholders who had attended a large community engagement meeting held March 24 at the Hancock Rec Center, in which she detailed the ideas for improvements which came up at the meeting, outlined an agenda for the next couple of months, and promised a progress report on the developing Hancock action plan by mid-May. In particular, she noted that her team is already focussing on three areas of opportunities: alcohol sales, increased junior programs, and historic designation (Gomillion elaborated that a historian is researching conflicting claims about the course, which may or may not be the oldest course in Texas, and/or the oldest continuously operating course west of the Mississippi).

At nine holes on a small tract with lots of challenges, Hancock is always going to be a square peg amid all the golf division's round holes, but it seems it may fit into the game plans after all.

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