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New groups tee up, face off in ongoing Hancock golf course discussions

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 by Jackson Barton

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department has already faced pandemic-related delays over the past month in its efforts to gather feedback about the future of the 120-year old Hancock Golf Course. Meanwhile, a handful of vocal groups, some just weeks old, have put forward their own opposing plans.

“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right,” Anthony Segura, parks department assistant director, said. “I don’t want anyone to show that we’re rushing the process, or we’re trying to get it done behind people’s backs. … We’re only interested in working with the public and getting their input.”

Neighborhood associations, conservancies and city departments all have different ideas for the financially troubled Hancock Golf Course. According to a Parks and Recreation presentation made for two postponed community meetings, the nine-hole course and recreation center cost the city’s Golf Enterprise Fund $118,179 in 2020. As a city-owned course, Hancock is expected to pay for itself.

City Council has directed Parks and Recreation to fix the course’s six-figure deficit.

The parks department is now unsure if it will get a request for proposal to City Council by January. The department planned two community engagement meetings on Oct. 26 and 29 to discuss the future of Hancock Golf Course, but both were postponed hours before the first meeting. Nearly 185 speakers had signed up for public comment. PARD said the meetings were canceled to fully adhere to the city’s public participation principles.

Segura said with the amount of misinformation circulating about the parks department’s plans for the course, breaking the meetings down into smaller groups would allow more people to speak and have their questions answered directly by the department.

“The last thing we want to do is have 185 people go to … whatever virtual (meeting app) we use, and not enough people get to speak and feel that they were denied (participation in) the process,” Segura said. “Because of the Covid situation, it makes it hard to deal with the virtual platform.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents the Hancock neighborhood, attended an in-person community engagement meeting to discuss the course last February. She said she appreciated the decision to postpone the two online community engagement meetings.

“I appreciate PARD’s willingness to slow the process down a bit, to have some – what I hope will be – authentic community engagement sessions and really work with the community to address the issue,” Tovo said.

A comprehensive report by the National Golf Foundation recommends the city invest $700,000-$900,000 and enter an agreement with a private entity to create a modern golf learning center at Hancock to relieve the course’s yearly budget shortfall.

In a PARD public feedback survey asking 344 Austinites how they used the course, around 28 percent of respondents said they used Hancock for golf or golf-related programs. The remaining 72 percent said they used Hancock primarily for walking, programs at the recreation center or other outdoor activities.

Hancock Neighborhood Association

While the Hancock Golf Course is city property, the Hancock Neighborhood Association helped the course receive its historical designation and several of its members use the course regularly.

“This is not a country club golf course,” Carolyn Palaima, secretary of the neighborhood association, said. “This is your little funky, friendly historic golf course. … Everybody gets out there just because you can get a quick game and it’s fun.”

The Hancock Neighborhood Association put forward a resolution during its regular meeting on Oct. 21 that would have directed PARD to split the golf course equally between golf use and parkland, while still seeking a private developer to enter into a concession agreement to help manage the course. It also recommended the department remove the course from the Golf Enterprise Fund, taking on expenses instead through the department’s General Fund.

The neighborhood association membership voted the resolution down.

At its meeting tomorrow, the Hancock Neighborhood Association will consider a resolution similar to that failed resolution, as well as a proposal to transform the course into parkland. Palaima said the goal of the meeting is to dispel misconceptions and help members better understand the two resolutions.

“They’ve got ideas, contributions and suggestions to make … and so it’s really to constructively bring the elements of both resolutions to our neighbors for a thoughtful discussion without this element of one or the other,” Palaima said.

Hancock Conservancy

The Hancock Conservancy, which formed in mid-October, is pushing for the golf course to become a public park. Conservancy co-founder Adam Sparks said without the course maintenance fees, the conservancy’s plan would balance the park’s budget with individual donations and grants.

“This could be the greatest park in North Austin, one that is a gem of the Austin parks system, and I think that could be achieved for something like $100,000 a year,” Sparks said. “It’s not like if we got rid of golf at Hancock they wouldn’t have other options. Morris Williams Golf Course, an 18-hole golf course with a driving range, is two miles away. There are not multiple 45-acre spaces in the heart of Austin.”

Sparks said the neighborhood association’s previous resolution to split the park equally was unrealistic if PARD wants to attract private developers to enter into a concession agreement, because the resolution only includes a proposal for a short course, and not a revenue generator like a driving range.

Sparks said the only way a split-use solution would make sense financially for PARD was if Hancock was split between park and driving range, an idea he disagreed with.

“If you can find someone who thinks adding a driving range makes any sense on that land, they’ll be the first person I’ve met,” Sparks said.

Sparks, who is not a member of the Hancock Neighborhood Association, said the conservancy’s goal of going through the neighborhood association is to show more community support for the park plan if their resolution is approved.

“We want to make sure the HNA leads the way in putting forward a pro-park resolution that all the other neighborhood associations can sign on,” Sparks said.

The Hancock Conservancy has a petition on its website with over 1,500 signatures supporting the golf course’s transformation into a public park, and opposing PARD’s plan to redevelop and invite private organizations to help manage the golf course.

Hancock Golf Course Conservancy

Kevin McKinney, one of the founding members of the Hancock Golf Course Conservancy, said he is no “golf nut.” He moved to the Hancock neighborhood in 1996, and while he does not golf much anymore, McKinney said preserving the course in its current state is important to preserving what its users love about it.

“This isn’t just about golf,” McKinney said. “It’s the historic greenspace of the Hancock neighborhood. … You can go out there even if you don’t play golf and have all sorts of fun.”

McKinney, who is also a member of the Hancock Neighborhood Association, helped found the Hancock Golf Course Conservancy after the neighborhood association’s Oct. 21 meeting, which the Hancock Conservancy’s members attended. He said he felt no one was speaking up for the golf course as it is now, and helped found the conservancy to preserve it.

McKinney disagrees with every other group’s proposed plan for Hancock. He does not want to see the National Golf Foundation’s recommendation for the million-dollar golf learning facility because he believes the course is fine the way it is.

McKinney said the $100,000 budget shortfall does not require drastic changes. The Hancock Golf Course Conservancy plans on seeking private donations to make up the deficit, along with adding additional smaller revenue sources to the course such as concessions and golf cart rentals.

He said transforming the golf course into a passive park without greens management and watering would ruin the greenspace for all its users, not just golfers.

“If it was a park, it would likely turn back into a brown Martian landscape,” McKinney said.

Readers can find information about upcoming plans and meetings for the Hancock Golf Course on the Golf ATX website.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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