A Struggling City Renovates Its Golf Course, Envisioning More Green (Jul 31)

July 31, 2015 – In taking office early last year, the mayor of East Orange inherited all the problems known to gritty New Jersey cities like his, from a deficit and blight to unemployment and crime. But he had one additional difficulty not shared by most of his mayoral peers.

A golf course.

Not just any golf course, either, but a course in the rarefied Short Hills section of Millburn, 10 miles and a world removed from the urban streets just outside East Orange City Hall. A course that few of the city’s residents ever see, much less play.

The East Orange Golf Course, which covers more than 150 acres of extremely valuable real estate, once provided a pastoral escape for the city’s golfers. But with time’s passage, it became shaggy and underused, with a shuttered restaurant and greens made challenging more by poor maintenance than by design.

The new mayor, Lester E. Taylor III, studied the course’s scorecard. It was operating $372,000 in the red, its number of rounds was plummeting and its clubhouse was a musty tribute to groovy 1970s aesthetics. “If you wanted a cold beer or something to eat?” he said. “Guess what, you can’t.”

Mayor Taylor had campaigned on a platform of reimagination for his city, which straddles the inner-city vibe of Newark and the suburban hum of South Orange. But if the municipality was to be run more like a business, he had to address the casual management of a golf course detached both physically and psychologically from the city itself.

So just as the 2014 golf season was beginning, the mayor called a timeout for this timeless game. He and the City Council abruptly closed the course, naturally leading to speculation that the city planned to sell the property – in one of the country’s most exclusive ZIP codes – for redevelopment.

But East Orange had other plans for its Short Hills oasis.

During its prosperity more than a century ago, East Orange bought more than 2,000 acres of farmland in and around Millburn to secure well fields that could help provide water to its residents. Then, in the mid-1920s, the Scottish golf course architect Tom Bendelow – the Johnny Appleseed of American golf – was retained to chart an 18-hole course beside the water reserve.

In the city’s annual report for 1926, amid updates from the Shade Tree Commission and an ode to “Mumble-the-Peg” from the Board of Recreation (“Practically every child on the playground flipped knives with the skill of marksmen”), a section proudly noted that the city’s just-opened golf course “has been pronounced by experts to compare favorably with the most expensively built private and club courses in the country.”

The years passed. The demographics of East Orange changed from mostly white to mostly black, from upper-middle-class to middle-class, working-class and poor. Short Hills, meanwhile, has become so affluent that even its mall smacks of the 1 percent. It has no Marshalls or Modell’s, but there is a Tesla Motors, as well as stores devoted to “fine writing instruments” and “the art of shaving.”

The United States Census Bureau maps the chasm between the two communities separated by 10 miles. The median value of a house in Short Hills, for example, is well north of $1 million; in East Orange, it is about $228,000. More than 87 percent of Short Hills residents have college degrees; in East Orange, 16 percent. And the median household income in Short Hills is about $225,000; in East Orange, $38,000.

But East Orange has some attributes that Short Hills lacks. An ethnically diverse population of 64,000 (including what the mayor says is the country’s second-largest population of Guyanese). A housing stock featuring modest apartments and historic homes. Its own water utility. Easy access to the Garden State Parkway. A musical heritage that includes Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Queen Latifah and Dionne Warwick.

And that golf course.

In recent years, only the occasional kerfuffle has returned the nearly forgotten golf course to public attention. In the early 1990s, the mayor and the golf course manager pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars in membership dues, including fees paid by a group called the Garden State Duffers.

A few years later, John Ferolito, a founder of the company that makes AriZona iced tea, hooked a ball off the 16th tee that hit a man in his group between the eyes, knocking him unconscious and causing serious injury. The ensuing lawsuit hinged, in part, on whether it was his first drive or an errant mulligan.

This is essentially what East Orange decided to do with its fabled, troubled golf course. It took a mulligan.

In temporarily closing the course, city officials never lost sight of the real estate’s potential. As a city report put it, “While the current demographics of the City of East Orange do not indicate a large golfer population, the demographics of the golf course area are quite the opposite” – although East Orange golfers, it must be said, might find Weequahic Golf Course in Newark more convenient.

The city eventually received state authorization for $6 million in bond financing to renovate the course and replace the clubhouse and restaurant. It hired Stephen Kay, a well-known golf course architect, to oversee the makeover, and Juan Casiano to serve as the on-site superintendent, all of which provided a more professional golf sensibility.

One recent hot morning, Mr. Casiano sat in a small office a few yards from the closed clubhouse, work gloves tossed on the floor, chain saws stacked on a shelf. On the wall hung a calendar, a few Post-it notes and a framed certificate from the Rutgers Professional Golf Course Turf Management School.

His sweat-dappled assistant, Ed Sylvia, walked in, and the two men slipped into a foreign language you might call Turfese, about “low-mow blue” and “850” and “lapping it and checking the cut.” The conversation reflected the agronomical challenge just outside the door.

Mr. Casiano, lean, intense and 40, had worked his way up in the insular world of golf course maintenance. After earning a degree in business management, he got a job at the Atlantic City Country Club as a grunt, whacking weeds and watering grass by hand. He moved on to other courses, continued his education in the field and developed a reputation after resuscitating a tired course in Atlantic County.

Last fall he was hastily summoned to East Orange, a city he had never visited, for a first interview for the golf superintendent’s job. Afterward, he put on his work boots and, in suit and tie, walked the course for a couple of hours.

He took in the uneven tee boxes, the water drainage problems, the overgrown fairways.

“Not in good shape,” Mr. Casiano recalled. But when offered the job, he understood Mr. Kay’s vision and knew what had to be done.

Late in the spring, a modified version of the East Orange Golf Course opened to the public, offering occasional hazards not often seen along the fairway. You might begin to hit off the first tee, only to have your concentration jarred by some passing construction equipment. Or chip your ball over some PVC pipe being laid for drainage. Or rattle your ball into a backhoe’s scoop.

But this is temporary, Mr. Casiano promised. A year from now, he said, the greens will be tight, the fairways true and the new clubhouse restaurant stocked with food and drinks.

Of the more than 150 people who have signed up for discount cards or season passes, 19 are East Orange residents, in realization of the course’s original purpose: to provide bucolic enjoyment to the city’s residents. Of course, its other purpose is what Mayor Taylor calls “a tremendous business opportunity”: to capture and redirect some of that Short Hills wealth.

The city of East Orange may not have a store dedicated to the art of shaving. But it does have a golf course with potential, in a close and distant place called Short Hills.

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