Friday, August 7, 2009

Not your typical golf course developer

Anthony Pioppi is not the kind of person one would expect to find behind a proposal to build a golf course on city-owned land in Maromas. He's a free-lance journalist living in Middletown, a self-described "hack guitarist", a blogger, a fan of Artfarm, and not connected to past efforts by politicians and businessmen to build a golf course in Maromas. Pioppi's proposal, Arawana Golf Course, is the most ambitious of the 6 received by the city for use of parts of the 256 acres of city-owned land near Connecticut Valley Hospital.

The Developer
Pioppi lives in Middletown, arriving here in the late 80s to work as a sportswriter, covering the Hartford Whalers for the Middletown Press, working there until 1995, and then for the Middletown Bureau of the Courant and briefly for the Record-Journal in Meriden. The Whalers have left Connecticut, and the Press has downsized, but Pioppi has remained. He continues to work as a journalist, now freelance, writing mostly about golf courses for trade magazines such as Golfdom. He has published two books about golf, one of which celebrates the memorable 9-hole golf courses in the United States, To the Nines (published in 2006 by Sports Media Group).

Pioppi told me he has no connection whatsoever to the previous attempts to put a golf course on land near CVH, "I never realized there was one until I saw the drawing that Michiel Wackers (deputy director of planning, conservation and development), came up with based on a Zikorus original drawing."

I met Pioppi on Bow Lane, near where he envisions the start of a 9-hole course for Middletown. We were joined by Brett Zimmerman, a friend of Pioppi. Both play out of Hunter Golf Course in Meriden. Pioppi came with a 2 foot machete, and he wielded it with abandon, slashing a path for us through the overgrown hay fields and thickets of vines as we toured the entire route of the Arawana course.

The Course
The course itself uses only parcels 1 and 2 of the five which are available, for a total of about 113 acres. These two parcels currently consist of hay fields which have been invaded by poison ivy and non-native weeds and vines, a tree farm managed by Millane's Nurseries which has terrible erosion problems, tangled webs of vine covered trees, a stand of 20 year old cedars, and a large paved staging area for the Kleen Energy power plant. About one-third of Parcel 3 would be used for a small club house and parking lot, a large practice area for driving and a short game practice area.

The course has been designed by Brian Silva, who in 1999 was Golf World Magazine's Architect of the Year. Pioppi told me that when Silva viewed the land, he was impressed by how easy it was to fit a golf course onto it. Very little earth would need to be moved, and most of the clearing specific to the course would be of vine-entangled trees and of hayfields encroached by poison ivy and invasive plants (the oil pipeline installation for Kleen Energy will clear a long stretch of trees on the edge of the property, much of which will be used for a golf cart path).

As we toured the land, Pioppi discussed the advantages of the site for a golf course. He pointed to the very local variations in the terrain, which he said was exactly what architects try to create in each golf hole. He also said that the swirling winds and micro-climates created by the Connecticut River would be very appealing to golfers.

Silva's style of golf course design is predicated on maximizing the variation available on each hole. Pioppi writes in his proposal, "His design philosophy is predicated on options, offering multiple routes along each golf hole to acommodate all levels of play." Each golf hole at Arawana will have multiple places to tee off, allowing people who want to play 18 holes to repeat the course, using a different tee shot on the second round.

A profile in Golf World magazine highlighted Silva's connection to the classic golf architecture era of the early 1900s:
Fact is, Brian Silva is now doing some of the most interesting work out there. Nothing outlandish or revolutionary. Just the opposite. It's retro design, very much reflecting the features and philosophies of grand old architects whose courses Silva has reworked over the years: Ross, Tillinghast and, especially, Raynor.

Environmentals of Golf
Parcels 1, 2, and 3 are at least partly in the City's aquifer protection zone, and concern has been raised by the Conservation Commission and others about the impact of farming by Millane Nurseries on the water quality (the photo to the right, by Robbins-Pianka, shows a pesticide sign from Millane between a city aquifer sign and an out-of-date State Property sign).

Golf courses in general are, from an environmental perspective, a monotonous manicured monoculture that requires an unsustainable application of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and enormous amounts of water. They are frequently an irresponsible use of land, especially near rivers and aquifers. From Thursday's New York Times:
Tom Bancroft, chief scientist with the National Audubon Society, says that for all the progress golf has made, it remains a deeply problematic industry. Many courses “use fertilizers that can run off into fresh water, and many use pesticides in lawn and grass,” Mr. Bancroft said.
However, most of the proposed features of the Arawana golf course are environmentally friendly, and will result in a golf course which is unlike many others in the area. Minimal land movement and tree clearing will be required, and the hayfields demonstrate that the soil is rich enough to support vigorous grass growth without extensive use of fertilizers. Pioppi proposes to use grass species for the fairways which require less water and fewer pesticides, and which will not maintain a bright green color in the warm summer months. Out of play areas will be mowed only a few times per year, just to keep out the invasive and unwanted species. The result will be a course with pale green and even light brown fairways, edged by the whispy brown of mature poverty grass and tall fescues.

Audubon International (a group that is separate from the National Audubon Society) has a Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf courses, and Arawana's proposal vows to seek certification under this program. Thirteen other courses in Connecticut have achieved this status. Linda Snow, who manages the program at Audubon International in Kentucky, told me that some golf course developers speak with her about their plans prior to designing the course. Pioppi has not yet spoken to Audubon International, but said that through his contacts in the industry he is "familiar with what needs to happen."

Arawana will use Integrated Pest Management to minimize the use of pesticides, according to the proposal. Pioppi told me that a golf course like Arawana, which will not be kept lush and deep green, "can be much more environmentally friendly than farms. Where farmers try to 'grow' a crop, golf course superintendents try to 'maintain' a crop."

Economics of Golf
Pioppi is focused exclusively on golf, he said that there would be no restaurant, just a small clubhouse that closes when the course closes, just enough for golfers to get a "burger and a beer." He is also not interested in any real estate development around the course, although he acknowledged that neighboring properties would increase in value if a course was built.

Pioppi estimates the cost of course and clubhouse construction to be $4 million, which is quite low compared to other recently built courses due to the minimal earth moving that is necessary. He hopes to draw water for irrigation out of the well currently being built to supply the Kleen Energy power plant, which would negate the need to drill a well on site and construct a holding pond.

Pioppi is convinced that Middletown can and should have a profitable golf course, despite the national indications that the number of golf rounds is declining, and the presence of two 18-hole courses in Portland and two 18-hole and one 9-hole course in Middlefield. He said Middletown residents "who golf out of town will turn around and golf here." He said the practice area, with a 50,000 square foot grass tee, will be one of the largest of any public golf course in Connecticut.

The course would be considered a public, or "daily fee" course, but not a municipal course, because it will be owned and operated by a private corporation, with a long term lease on the land from the city. Pioppi said that an investor has expressed an interest in providing half of the capital. He said the investor could not be named until after a deal was agreed to with the city, but said that it was a company not based in Connecticut. Pioppi told me he is also very interested in local investors, "It is important to me that the Middletown community be a part of this project."

Pioppi did not provide an estimate of how much revenue the City might expect to receive from the course, and said it was premature to say what greens fees might be. However, other municipalities which lease land to a golf course receive a minimum annual payment between $10k and $100k, and a percentage of the greens and cart fees. For example, a "Ground Lease" from the county government to a private corporation in Orange County, CA, was set at 7% in the first year and increased to 14% after 10 years.

Using rough numbers, one can make an estimate of what Middletown might earn from a ground lease to Arawana. The nine-hole Indian Springs course in Middlefield charges $17 for the greens fee, other area courses charge $21 to $29 for 9 holes of golf. The cart fees range from $7.50 to $10 per round. A typical number of rounds for a modest 9-hole course is 25,000 rounds per year. With these kinds of numbers, Arawana might gross $750,000 per year on golf, which at 10% would generate $75k for the city. Clubhouse sales might generate further income for both Arawana and the city.

Other Benefits to the City
Pioppi did not want to commit to any specific amounts for a contract with the city, saying those numbers would be determined in negotiations later. However, he said that the course would foster youth golf, giving the high school golf teams a place to practice in their own town. He also said that a golf course would eliminate invasive species and prevent further erosion, while providing access to the land to more residents than currently are able to use it.

Pioppi called the Artfarm proposal to use Parcel 5 "intriguing, there could easily be a trail connecting the golf course to that part of the property." He said hiking trails on golf course land were typically not permitted by insurance companies, but expressed a hope that the adjacent land would be used by hikers. Small sections of Parcel 2, around the golf course, could continue to be hayed by local farmers.

Pioppi also touted the benefits to local businesses of the golf course. He envisioned having lists of Middletown restaurants at the clubhouse to hand out to golfers, sending them from the course down to Main Street for lunch or dinner, two miles away.


Judy said...

Nice article - a lot of work went into this. Thank you.

I'm not a golfer, so obviously I am not interested in a golf course. I live by CVH and would love something that I could benefit from in my own neighborhood.

I would love to see something a larger population would benefit from. Something more broad, more "community" rather than just for one subset - the "golf community".

I would love big organic farms that different organizations could adopt and run for their members. Everyone eats, right?

How many people are looking for a dog park? How many people are pet owners?

I would love to hear other ideas people have.

Anonymous said...

Great article, its nice to see local people working to make Middletown better. The 3 new proposals are very exciting for our town and I dont golf or read Shaksphere.

Anonymous said...

Although there are several Aquifer Protection Zone signs next to Pesticide Warning signs, none of these signs are actually within the official Aquifer Protection Area. I do not know when these ironically juxtaposed signs were put in place or by whom but I have surmised that they either predate the finalized boundaries of the Aquifer Protection Area or that there is a difference between an Aquifer Protection Zone and an Aquifer Protection Area. Anyone with firm knowledge , please come forward.
Barrie Robbins-Pianka

Anonymous said...

It looks like the golf course is a very likely what we will get. Am I the only one who can see that Ralph Wilson's Bow Lane property increases in value immensely with a golf course? Are we getting all set for politics as usual wrapped around 9 holes of golf?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there's any good reason someone would need to protect the identity of a golf course investor, but it certainly raises suspicions. I think the city should demand that the investors be named, publicly, prior to any agreement being signed.

I'm also surprised at how complete a plan Pioppi has submitted, considering that the RFP is what, just more than a month old? Could the plans have been created before the RFP? Could the golf course plans have been the catalyst for the RFP?

Light green or brown fairways? Please tell me where one of these (profitable) golf courses exist.

Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

As I am not a golfer, I am course- lay out impaired. I assume on a 9 hole course that one goes around the course twice. Are the exact same greens used? Looking at the contour map, the golf cart route over duck hill on parcel #2 would be very steep. It's hard to see the boundaries of the parcels, the route of the oil pipeline and the wetlands vis a vis the small and large blobs which indicate teeing-off places, fairways and greens(?). Presumably this is a kind of sketch rather than a detailed plan. The practice and clubhouse area is large. What is the function of a clubhouse exactly? Is it an air-conditioned bar/restaurant/banquet facility with a shop for golf gear, a nice view and a place to wait until you go out on the course? Or, is it a more modest undertaking that is strictly functional, such as collecting fees, renting equipment that is like miniature golf? Depending upon success, a substantial parking area and sewers might be required. Which brings to mind the nature of the lease that the City would consider negotiating for this proposed enterprise. A favorable lease might make all the difference.

Looking forward to hearing more about the golf course, the other proposals and the prevailing attitudes toward them in the "corridors of power" in Middletown.

Anonymous said...

Like Just Wondering and Anonymous 9:09, I have a suspicious nature. Why has it taken so long for Mr. Wilson, Mr.Mayor, Mr.Serra and Mr. McHugh to have their own convenient clubhouse? Wasn't it just a short time ago that these gentleman quickly huddled to prevent transfer of conservation easements from the surrounding DMHAS properties to the DEP? Is it possible they had some knowledge of Mr.Pioppi's plans?

Anonymous said...

I hope Anonymous 9:45 is a better golfer than he/she is a liar.Portland had no problems building THREE courses. If you want to see steep, check out Lyman's. Yes, the sole purpose of the clubhouse is to be visible for miles around the countryside, its arc lights blotting out the stars, and the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay overpowered by the stench of liquor-soaked testosterone.
Curse the damned electric light bulb and horseless carriage!

Anonymous said...

If Portland has 3 golf courses, and we already have one at Lyman's...what do we need another one for?

Let's do something different, something innovative!

Anonymous said...

Middletown already has Miner Hills. We already have golf courses the public can play at--3 in Portland, one in Middlefield and one in Middletown and they are allowing another? Why not use that beautiful land for something useful everyone can use--and I like to play golf. Golf courses pollute--there is no way around it. You knock a lot of trees down, then you use chemicals to keep the grass green (don't let anyone tell you otherwise). The landscape needs to be "contoured" (destroyed in my opinion). Run off is a problem so you need to further contour the surroundings or put drainage in. This is Middletown's most beautiful area. Besides as a golfer I have no interest in playing 9 holes as do most serious golfers. The courses in Portland and Middlefield would put this to shame and they are for all levels. Stop this development!

man of the town said...

Not sure this is the best way to use the land but I like it better than doing nothing. The land is not used now "but by those being there illegal riding motorcycles and ATV's". At least the golf course would get use and bring some much needed money to the Middletown coffers. Just think $75,000 could pay for a police officer or a fireman plus.

argos said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

"The land is not used now but by those being there illegal riding motorcycles and ATV's". The land is used. The land is a beautiful area to hike. If you've never been there, check it out as it's beautiful and I'll bet you won't see an ATV or motorcycle (i walk in that area nearly every day). As for taxes, $75,000 isn't all that much into the town coffers especially when you consider that now the town has to service an area with sewers, road care, etc it never had to service. If it's not successful as I doubt it will be like the golf course in Berlin on the Middletown Border that was abandoned one has to ask how many courses can an area support? Are there really that many golfers to support 6 golf courses (Miner in Middletown, Lymans, this proposed course and the three in Portland) in a 10 mile radius.

A group should organize to stop this development.

argos said...

So the front man presents himself as "not a typical golf course developer." But my guess is that the scheme wouldn't have gotten this far without the backroom participation of a cast of characters who continue to pant after the development of Maromas.

Anonymous said...

Argos has a good point. Maybe Pioppi is merely a figurehead who is there to provide PR: to give the message "I am an environmentalist," with a subtext of local boy makes good. If he will not be the owner or the CEO of the golf course, how much confidence can we have in his vows that the course would be environmentally friendly?

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are avid golfers. We enjoy all the golf courses in the area. We have noticed this summer tee times are quite available at all area courses. Is another course in our area economically feasible?


Anonymous said...

Nothing screams economic success like a hippie commune.

NOBO said...

Regarding Anon. 5:03's comments.First off, Miner Hill is a glorified par-3 course. Second, some people who work for a living and cannot afford club memberships or paying $50 or more to play 18 holes, enjoy the convenience of a quick nine holes after work. Even though "serious golfers" don't play less than 18 (excuuuuuse me Mr. Nicklaus!),at least this would afford us "hacks" the opportunity to play without intruding on you.