Kevin Gaughan’s Goofy Golf Dream
Some years back, there was a parade along Lincoln Parkway in Buffalo. Fire engines, high school marching bands, reserve units, people in all kinds of ethnic and military uniforms. Then a bunch of gorgeous old cars.
Diane Christian and I heard the noise and walked from our house to watch it.
One of the last vehicles to go by was a Cadillac convertible. Kevin Gaughan sat up on the back, his butt on the folded roof, his feet on the seat. He waved and smiled at everyone.
“Why is Kevin in this parade,” Diane asked, “and why is he waving like that?”
“Beats me,” I said.
About then, Kevin leaned forward and took some very small footballs out of a box on the seat of the convertible. He tossed them to kids watching the parade. He grinned, waved, and tossed.
“Kevin is about to run for something,” I said to Diane.
Sure enough: A few weeks or months later he announced. I don’t remember which of his runs it was. He’s tried for office—mayor, congressman, assemblyman, county comptroller—at least seven times, sometimes as Democrat, sometimes as Republican. Whatever line was open.
Nobody ever elected Kevin to public office.
Gaughan’s golf course proposal
Gaughan recently came up with a plan for turning the awful 18-hole golf course in Delaware Park into a destination 18-hole golf course, and, in addition, creating a new nine-hole golf course on non-public land in South Buffalo. He also plans to build Frederick Law Olmsted’s never-built arboretum in South Park. And he also plans to build an educational center that will prepare the city’s youth to find employment in environmental endeavors.
On June 16, he wrote Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the Olmsted Conservancy (which has a contract with the City of Buffalo to maintain the Olmsted parks) about his idea. He wrote that it came to him “In February 2014, during my daily run in Delaware Park on a brisk Buffalo morning.”
Mornings in Buffalo in February do tend to be brisk.
Gaughan wrote that his plan would cost $40 million, all of which he promised to raise from private sources: “This project shall be at no cost to taxpayers. During my twenty years of civic service to our region, my work has not cost taxpayers one dime. I intend to keep it that way.”
I do not doubt Gaughan’s claim that his previous projects haven’t cost the taxpayers any money. That is because I do not know of a single public project Gaughan has ever mounted. He has organized a few conferences (the one he cites most was at Chautauqua, a private summering institution, three decades ago); he has urged some towns to slim their boards or abolish themselves (some did; some didn’t; some were on the way were doing it anyway; some said, “Who needs you to tell us what to do?”).
But he has never, so far as I can find out, mounted a public project with an employee, or a building, or a piece of land.
These new golf courses, he told Mayor Brown and the Conservancy, would be designed by golf great Jack Nicklaus, who is also one of the golfing industry’s most prolific golf course designers.
The Conservancy and the mayor’s office received Gaughan’s letter only three days before a big article about the same plan appeared in the Buffalo News and on the Buffalo Rising website. Neither the Buffalo News nor Buffalo Rising moves quickly. This suggests that Gaughan set his PR in motion before he delivered it to agencies that would have to deal with it.
It is a PR equivalent of a reporter asking, on camera, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” There is no good answer to that question. It is, from the point of view of the Conservancy and the mayor’s office, what people in public jobs call being “sandbagged.” The metaphor refers to being hit on the back of the head by a heavy object when you have no reason to think it is coming.
If you fake it, they might come
Gaughan seems to assume that if he gets all this started, everyone will have to sign on, that there will be an accredited institution to legitimize the educational component, that $40 million in a town very short of money will appear, that two glorious destination golf courses will burst forth, and, most important, that any of this jogging fantasy is needed or wanted.
It is the “If you build it they will come” theory of development. That worked beautifully for Kevin Costner in the syrupy 1989 movie Field of Dreams. That is not how things work in the real world. Kevin Costner got to play baseball in that movie with dead baseball heroes of the distant past. Most people don’t get to do that.
Gaughan’s plan requires huge investment by the City of Buffalo, the University at Buffalo, and a wide range of donors in the immediate present. Thus far, no investor has expressed any interest in this.
Right now, in Buffalo, there are several major public projects deserving major funding. Here are just three of them: the Albright-Knox expansion, improvement of the Museum of Science observatory, and the Children’s Hospital relocation and expansion.
How much money is available for these things in this region and what agencies might provide it?
We have the Wilson Foundation, which is still formulating how it will spend down. We have the Oishei Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, and a few others. And some private individuals.
Would you pull $40 million out of those projects for golf courses?
The Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising fairly drooled over Gaughan’s proposal, or whatever the gushing print version of drooling is. Neither questioned any aspect of it. Both said it would be wonderful for the city. The News not only ran a long, uncritical article about it, the first paragraph of which was entirely untrue (it began saying that Nicklaus had offered to come to Buffalo; nonsense; he had been offered a job in Buffalo; he offered nothing) but it followed that article with a long editorial singing the glories of Gaughan’s pie-in-the-sky plan. Buffalo Rising mostly reprinted Gaughan’s letter to Byron Brown and the Conservancy, without quotation marks, and added a few lines about how swell this all was.
Gaughan’s educational “collaborators”
Gaughan’s educational center requires involvement of University at Buffalo and the Buffalo school system. I have been able to find no one in Buffalo Public Schools or UB who was involved in the preparation of Gaughan’s plan, or in serous discussion of it after it was formulated. I could not find anyone in either institution he talked to before going public with the plan claiming their engagement.
He says he talked to people. We all talk to people. That is not the same as getting major public institutions to buy in to a huge project.
Without talking to anyone in any of the communities or agencies that might be involved, Gaughan set about talking to people of importance he knew. His letter calls our attention to a bunch of them, either by name or by job: someone at Harvard, someone in a big investment firm in New York, people in Buffalo who know things, and, most important of all, Jack Nicklaus, the famous golfer, for whom Gaughan’s brother works.
According to Gaughan’s June 16 letter, his plan for the two golf courses and educational institution, will cost $40 million. All numbers in Gaughan’s plan but two are rounded out to six zeroes; two are rounded out to seven zeroes.
Anyone who has worked on public projects or who has read a lot of public project budgets, or who has been on a panel funding budgets, can look at that letter and know that each of those budget items was plucked out of the air. If you are taking your numbers seriously, few end in six zeroes, and far fewer end in seven zeroes.
Two more major line items have no dollar amounts at all. They are just “Administration” and “Miscellaneous,” with a blank space in the right column, where numbers are supposed to be.
Running things costs money. You put up the building once, but the costs of administering it and what goes on within it go on for as long that enterprise survives. There are employees, electric bills, leaks in the roof, heaters that go bad. Those items are not peripheral; they are what you need to let the real work of the institution go on. They are not a blank line in the budget. The reason the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which had a terrific expansion plan a few years ago, is now engaging in massive staff and program cuts, is they built and expanded, but they didn’t fold into their expansion accounting the cost of the people who would operate and maintain those wonderful new spaces. Nor, astonishingly, did they factor in the cost of the debt service for the bonds they issued.
“Administration” and “Miscellaneous” aren’t abstract line items for people actually running an institution. Only someone who has never designed or operated any real agency would offer a budget proposal with those lines blank. Everybody who has ever actually run anything knows those are lines that can go from 0 to ∞.
Kevin Gaughan tried to get elected seven times and couldn’t do that. How might he come up with $40 million in this place, this time, this economy with a budget as vaporous as the one he offered the Conservancy and City Hall? Why should anyone take his jogging insight seriously? Why would anyone who understands money fund a project that makes no distinction between 0 and ∞?
Both the Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising, in their endorsements of Gaughan’s plan, referred to him as a “leader.” They never said a leader of what or whom.
The late Warren Bennis, widely acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on the art of leadership, was once asked how he defined a leader.
“A leader,” Bennis said, “is someone who has followers.”
Other than the editors of the Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising, who follows Kevin Gaughan?
Gaughan is not a “leader.” He’s just a guy who comes up with ideas now and then.
Buffalo’s built environment
Buffalo is, in architectural terms, perhaps America’s most schizoid city.
It contains astonishing architectural masterpieces: E. B. Green’s 1905 Albright, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, the Richardson-Olmsted psychiatric complex, Daniel Burnham’s Ellicott Square Building, the Saarinens’ Kleinhans Music Hall, the surviving Frank Lloyd Wright structures, the deco masterpieces all over downtown and throughout Forest Lawn Cemetery. And so much more. Read Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, Francis Kowsky’s superb work on Buffalo’s architectural past and present, and you’ll understand what marvels are within the city lines.
And the city has, for decades, embraced public programs that have relentlessly destroyed much of that brilliant work.
—The Buffalo Convention Center fractured one of the city’s primary radial streets, designed by Joseph Ellicott (on whose city design Olmsted built).
—The HSBC tower looms over Main Street, blocking out the sky and looming disproportionately over everything nearby, an architectural bully, now pathetically vacant.
—State routes 33 and 198 destroyed the most beautiful and functional of Olmsted’s Buffalo boulevards and shattered viable neighborhoods.
—Route 198 and the Delaware Avenue s-curves are four-lane roads that not only bisect Delaware Park but separate Delaware Park from Forest Lawn (Olmsted saw the park and graveyard as a coherent whole) and chew up a good portion of the park itself.
—When Richardson and Olmsted designed the psychiatric complex, they saw the green area—it went from Grant Street on the West to Elmwood Avenue on the East and Scajaquada Creek on the north—as part of the Delaware Park-Forest Lawn complex. That was later obliterated by the huge footprint of Buffalo State College.
—Front Park has been all but destroyed by Peace Bridge truck access roads and processing operations, as well as government offices.
—Most of the city’s access to its waterfront is cut off by I-190.
—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Office Building was torn down to create a parking lot.
—Five acres of Delaware Park Lake was filled in by excavations from the s-curve construction project.
—The Gordon Bunshaft wing of the Albright-Knox Art Galley set up a black wall that cut off the entire western end of Olmsted’s design. A gallery that was part of the park became a gallery that sheared off the park and restricted access to it..
—And Buffalo’s light rail system destroyed retail business in the heart of the city.
There is more. But what need is there to list more? Buffalo is a city of great architecture and astonishing errors.
Planning, or the lack thereof
Gaughan’s golf course plan has been encumbered by no planning or thought or consultation or criticism, other than the people with whom he may have had personal contacts. It is an idea that popped into his head, as he said, while jogging in Delaware Park on a cold winter day, and which the Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising immediately endorsed. He talked to some people he could get to talk to him. He wrote letters to the Olmsted Conservancy and to Mayor Byron Brown.
Thus far, both the Conservancy and Mayor Brown have said little, other than that they received letters from Gaughan. Only the Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising are gushing about the plan and urging the city to go forward with it.
The Conservancy and the mayor were both euchred by Gaughan: He got it out in the press before they had time to vet his letter at all. Good for them that they have refused to bite.
As with so many of our past disasters, like Route 33 and Route 198, the s-curves and the convention center: The Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising editorial writers say we should build, then think.
That is not, as Buffalo should have learned by now, a good way to do public works.
The real question Gaughan and his flacks avoid
The basic question here isn’t whether Kevin Gaughan’s plan might result in a destination golf course. It is whether there should there be a golf course in Delaware Park at all. And, if not in Delaware Park, where might it it be?
The golf course has been there, I’ve been told, for 120 years. So far as I can tell, everyone, except the few golfers who use it, hates it. The golf course occupies a huge amount of space in the north section of the park. Softball players, people walking baby carriages, joggers—all report finding themselves on the wrong end of bad slices. That part of the park is not friendly.
If other people are to use the section of Delaware Park north of the 198, there is not room for an 18-hole golf course. It is like having two feet in one shoe. You can’t do it.
Everyone in the golf course business knows that the rule of thumb for 18-hole golf course construction is that you need a minimum of 120 acres. The area within Delaware Park’s ring road is about 100 acres. The golf course there now is folded and compressed; regular users talk about the four holes that are decent.
So who gets to utilize that huge portion of Delaware Park? If it is golfers, and if everyone else who uses the periphery of that golf course complains about dangerous balls coming their way and being foreclosed from walking across that lovely meadow, why exacerbate the problem by building a new 18-hole golf course designed by a world-class golf course designer, which will inevitably result in the exclusion from that huge section of Delaware Park of more joggers, kids, parents, people playing ball. You know—the people out there doing what Frederick Law Olmsted figured they would be doing.
We should get that golf course out of Delaware Park entirely. There is plenty of room in East Buffalo and South Buffalo for an 18-hole course. Gaughan said he looked there but he couldn’t find the space. City planners I know say he didn’t look seriously enough or hard enough.
Put a golf course elsewhere and it will enhance neighboring property values. Why make things worse in Delaware Park than they are now? Why waste all that money doing it? The Conservancy’s own long-term plan suggests getting rid of the golf course as a major option. Olmsted meant that meadow to be used by people walking, sitting, hanging out, like the meadow in Central Park in New York. He never saw it as a free-fire zone.
Right now only golfers can use that huge space. Gaughan wants to bring more golfers there, which will make it more dangerous and useless for everyone else. His plan maybe seemed neat while he was on a winter jog, but it really makes no sense at all.
A postscript: the underlying issue
The Olmsted Conservancy has done an astonishing job of revitalizing the Olmsted system in Buffalo. It is constantly scuffling for money to do its job. It shouldn’t have to be taking seriously a plan to set up a moneymaking golf course in Delaware Park. It shouldn’t have to be pushing a destination bar/restaurant in the Delaware Park casino. Neither of those is in service to the park’s real users. That is just the Conservancy turning tricks.
What should it be doing? Where should the money the Conservancy needs come from? That shall be the subject of the next, and I hope final, article in this series.
Bruce Jackson is The Public’s editor-at-large. Over the past 18 years, he has written more than 200 articles about civic issues. He is also SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture, and Chevalier in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.