The Best-Laid Plans

This is the fourth installment in a continuing series detailing the challenges facing a small community attempting to build a municipal course. The planned facility is part of the remediation of a Superfund site, where the federal government operated a uranium and vanadium processing plant from 1941 to 1960.

As the withering July sunshine beat down on the high desert of southeastern Utah, Trent Schafer sat comfortably in his air-conditioned municipal office, sorting through a daunting stack of course design documents. All summer long the city manager for Monticello had received proposal after proposal explaining how and why this or that architecture firm would best meet Monticello's singular design need: nine new holes across from its existing nine-hole layout, Blue Mountain Meadows Golf Course on Highway 191.

Then the phone rang. "This gentleman explained that he'd been following our project and he'd like to bid," Schafer recalls. "I said, 'Sure. I'll send you an RFP [request for proposal].' "

The caller was Forrest Richardson, an architect with Golf Group Ltd. out of Phoenix, Ariz. "I'm sitting next to the guy who designed your original nine," Richardson explained, noting that Jack Snyder, now 82, had laid out Blue Mountain Meadows GC back in 1961 for the princely sum of $1,000.

"Is that so?" Schafer responded, a wry smile on his face. "Would he be willing to do the next nine for that amount?"

If only life, golf economics and the machinations of town government were that simple. Some 40 years ago, course design contracts might have been awarded on a phone call or handshake, but no longer. Today's municipal projects are million-dollar affairs, scrutinized for long-term profitability and environmental sensitivity, especially when they're developed on land where uranium mills once stood.

Richardson and Snyder did submit a proposal, along with 15 other design firms from all over the United States. After narrowing the field to five, the Monticello Golf Committee ruminated, conducted interviews, checked references and compared costs. Armed with the committee's formal recommendation, the Monticello City Council ultimately selected, at an Aug. 1 public hearing ... Golf Group Ltd.

"I'm sure there was a little bit of emotion attached to Forrest and Jack's proposal, but we really could have gone with any one of the five finalists," Schafer says. "What really swayed the committee was the way Forrest stressed feasibilities — the marketing and financial analysis. In other words, once this course is built, how do we get players to Monticello and how do we ensure this course can support itself? Forrest said you have to address these issues up front, before we design anything. And we agreed."

The Department of Energy (DOE) has been busy addressing Monticello's thorny environmental issues for the better part of 15 years. Remediation of this once-blighted property is scheduled to conclude this year. More than 2 million cubic yards of contaminated soil will have been excavated, hauled away, buried and sealed in a hilltop repository one mile from the site.

Because this is a Superfund site, federal legislation obliges the DOE to return the Monticello parcel to its pre-1941 condition. This spring, however, the city and the DOE struck a deal: In exchange for $6.5 million, Monticello agreed to assume responsibility for completing the DOE's three remaining restorative obligations: long-term erosion control, five acres of wetlands mitigation and the rechanneling of Montezuma Creek, which runs through the property. With this sort of financial wherewithal, and the continued oversight of the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency, Monticello has promised to fulfill these clean-up obligations in the process of building its nine new holes.

"That's a lot of money," Richardson says, "but we have a tremendous responsibility to spend this money prudently. We have no intention of designing and building a golf course that won't support itself. We have to assess the situation very carefully — before we go routing or designing any golf holes."

Indeed, not a speck of "course" work can begin until the city takes possession of the former mill site. The DOE has yet to formally transfer ownership of the parcel, though Schafer expects this to happen "by the end of the year." In the meantime, federal deadlines continue to loom large and unchanged. "We're supposed to give notice of award on the creek realignment and wetlands restoration by May 15, 2000," the city manager explains. "By that time we'll have a golf course design from the architect; we'd also like to have a course contractor on board."

The business of designing and constructing courses has changed a great deal since the waning days of the Eisenhower Administration, when Jack Snyder first set foot in Monticello. "Joe Cooper flew down to Show-Low [Ariz.] and picked me up in his Beech Bonanza," Snyder recalls. "When I arrived, they already had a rudimentary nine up there. But they were playing the old course in the wrong direction. All the slices were going out of bounds and not into the course itself."

Snyder suggested they reroute the holes in a clockwise fashion, agreed to fully redesign nine holes for $1,000 and headed back to Arizona. "I remember sending them 12 pages of plans for the layout and irrigation — but then they ran out of money and used my plans to finish the course themselves," Snyder says. "It was a real bit of deja vu going up to Monticello this summer; I hadn't been back in 40 years! I played the course; the greens didn't come out quite right. Too steep. But all in all, I think the final product turned out quite nicely."

Snyder was fairly new to course design when he laid out Blue Mountain Meadows. He had practiced landscape architecture during the 1940s and dabbled in course design; like his two brothers, he eventually followed his father, Arthur, into the maintenance realm. Jack served as superintendent at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club from 1951-52 before making a fateful move west — to White Mountain CC in Pinetop, Ariz. In 1959, he left White Mountain to concentrate on course design, a decision that coincided with a development boom and, with the aid of air conditioning, would soon transform the Southwest.

Today, with some 40 courses under his belt — in Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Hawaii — Snyder is recognized as one of course design's grand old men. He served as president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1982. Shortly thereafter he took under his wing a young landscape architect named Forrest Richardson; together they formed Golf Group Ltd. in 1988.

During the four decades that separated Snyder's two visits to Monticello, the game's development equation has been formalized 10-fold. Golf Group's recent proposal, for example, was for architectural planning, civil engineering consulting, initial irrigation design, marketing and financial analyses, advertising research, construction documents and consulting on bidding and negotiating with subcontractors. The fee: $76,500. (Schafer said the various bids ranged from $68,000 to $250,000.)

Yet certain things haven't changed in the 40 years since Snyder first boarded Cooper's Beech Bonanza. The architect still serves as ringleader and point man when it comes to course development. Richardson was on the job less than 48 hours when he started advising the town on bidding various jobs and choosing vendors. One of the first hires was Frank Potiva, a resident of Flagstaff, Ariz., who will handle Monticello's civil engineering requirements. Potiva has worked with Golf Group in the past; he's also quite familiar with the mill site, having produced storm-water pollution protection plans for the Utah Division of Water Quality.

In short order, Richardson also reviewed the DOE's separate plans for creek realignment and wetlands mitigation; because it is working to meet federal deadlines, the Department was eager to determine whether its plans would prove compatible with a course design. They do, said Richardson. But just what this course will look like won't be decided for some time.

"At this particular juncture, we really don't know," the architect says. "We're into a planning phase that, by design, we need to begin from the beginning. Jack and I are committed to combining the needs of community, the agencies and the facility that will take shape. But there are too many variables right now, so we have no preconceived ideas."

Variables? The Monticello project is awash with them, owing mostly to the property's sullied past and the luxury of having $6.5 million in government funds. Should the town merely add nine to the existing loop? Should it cannibalize the old nine to create 18 new holes, or merely renovate the existing nine? A tunnel under Highway 191 will be necessary to link the holes; but where should it go? Is a new clubhouse necessary and, if so, where? What about a practice range? Might the course be reconfigured to accommodate other recreational amenities, such as cross-country skiing and hiking trails?

Many of these questions will be addressed via the aforementioned feasibility studies, to be conducted by Dick Slivinski of Phoenix-based Leisure Time Industries. "What we need from Dick is an unbiased appraisal of the situation," Richardson explains. "In other words, his work will tell us what the city can reasonably charge for green fees, and how much it will need to spend on maintenance. Once Dick has finished with his feasibilities, we can plug in some assumptions and determine what is appropriate to spend. All of these things need to converge, along with the desire of Jack and I to create a course that's fun to play and distinctive."

Richardson believes there is an opportunity to create a sort of Four Corners golfing trail, beginning in Farmington, N.M. (home to the celebrated Pi-on Hills Golf Course, two hours south of Monticello), and stretching to Moab Golf Course, located an hour north of town.

"Monticello could anchor the middle point of that golfing itinerary," he says. "It's a great climate in many ways; it's picturesque, and there's lots to do for those who might be traveling with a golfer: Lake Powell, Mesa Verde, Canyon Lands National Park in Moab.

"From a marketing perspective, we have to determine who might play this course (aside from local golfers) and how to let people know about it. It may be that the city should spend a seem-ingly disproportionate amount of its money on marketing, because you don't want to be winking at a girl in a dark room; you don't want to end up with a 'Field of Dreams.' Build it and they will come? Well, maybe."

Hal Phillips is a former editor with Golf Course News.