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Room for links along Route 5

July 30, 2012

Back when Joel Giambra was in office, he mentioned that the former Bethlehem Steel site and the Outer Harbor could serve as a grand links-style golf course. If only that could be the case.

Clearly there is enough space for a golf course, but plenty of work needed on the former Bethlehem Steel site.

The Bethlehem Steel property sits along a massive stretch of waterfront land along Route 5 and has been sitting fallow for a number of years. A bit of green development has recently dotted the property, as the Steel Winds wind farm has sprouted 13 wind turbines along the property. Its not exactly brownfield remediation, but it is better than the few pieces of the blast furnaces and coke ovens that still stand.

Just like almost everything else in Buffalo and Western New York, the golf community is in somewhat of a vacuum. There are few premier courses in the area, with the handful that do exist charging a truly premium rate in greens fees. The rest of the courses in Western New York range anywhere from average to terrible with greens fees typically heading in the opposite direction.

Buffalo, by no means, is a haven that golfers from across the nation flock to. There are some gems to play, however. Glen Oak is probably the most impressive course of the bunch as a Robert Trent Jones design. In a few more years, Seneca Hickory Stick (Robert Trent Jones Jr. design) will be equal to the task. Ivy Ridge is a phenomenal track and even Diamond Hawk and Harvest Hill fall into the premium category for courses in the area.

All of the best courses, however, are located in outer suburbs. In fact, some of the best golf within 30 minutes of Buffalo is played in Canada (Thundering Waters, Legends on the Niagara). Diamond Hawk is the closest premium course to the city of Buffalo and that is located across the street from the airport.

Not only does the Bethlehem Steel site provide the necessary land for a golf course, it has a great location. The course is minutes from downtown and would provide vistas that would rival another links course that resides along the shores of a Great Lake, Whistling Straits. Maybe the opposite side of Route 5 isn’t exactly picturesque, but the drive leading up to where the old Bethlehem Steel administration building sits is rather scenic.

In addition, the ability to utilize a waterfront view like this site would provide is something that few courses have the opportunity to take advantage of. Considering the immense amount of land available, there would be no trouble fitting a 36-hole course into this space. Providing a pair of courses as part of the development seems like a simple choice just as a way to provide more access to those wishing to use the course.

The obvious obstruction is the massive amount of remediation the land would need. Calling this a brownfield remediation project might be an understatement. I think it goes without saying that there is some sort of chemical contamination in the ground throughout that property and there are additional pieces of infrastructure (rail, pavement and buildings) that dot the land as well.

All kidding aside, you could probably till the land, roll out some sod and have freakishly healthy grass thanks to most of those chemicals. However, golfers who played the course on a regular basis would probably grow a few extra thumbs without proper remediation at the area.

Given the spread of the former plant, I gather that any remediation would take a number of years to correct. In addition, that much time – no matter who is funding it – would likely cause a major delay or concern for anyone planning to build on the site.

The presence of portions of the steel mill and the 13 turbines aren’t as much of an issue in my opinion. Leaving some of the main steel plant buildings would give personality to the location. The windmills also would provide character to a lakeside course. In general, incorporating those unique pieces into the overall look of the course, with the lake lining one side, would provide signature features that other courses cannot boast. It is similar to a restaurant built into an old train car or church. You wouldn’t be able to find that type of atmosphere anywhere else.

Using Whistling Straits as a comparison for this type of development probably isn’t the best course of action. Mainly because Whistling Straits is a $200+ a round resort course that probably wouldn’t survive in Western New York. It certainly wouldn’t survive in Lackawanna (no offense). However, it is a beautiful links course that runs along the shore of Lake Michigan which does serve for a good outline for a course along the outer harbor.

What I would like to see is this course pull ideas from Whistling Straits. Create that same type of Scottish links golf, use the lake as part of the landscape and create a destination for residents and visitors alike. Ideally, if this course could be built to a similar design to Whistling Straits, but with a lower price point, I could see it being a massive success.

Perhaps if solid press and strong management were consistent for the course, it could grow to be a true destination for golfers across the nation. Wishful thinking, yes. But it would be a massive piece of green space that would allow for public access (well, access if you pay and bring your clubs) which could grow to be a regional destination. It hits the development trifecta for all the hipster whiners who fear retail development like the plague.

Ultimately, this idea is born from a piece of land that could be used for little else and the ability for Buffalo to accept at least one more course for the golfing community to patronize. Being able to form a course on a unique landscape with tremendous views of the city and lake makes it that much more of a distinctive plan.

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