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Can disc golf survive Denver's boom?

The 11-year-old, 21-hole course at Lakewood/Dry Gulch Park, commonly known as “Paco’s” because the first tee box sits in Paco Sanchez Park.

Denver Parks and Recreation opened a $1.8 million, 7.5-acre mountain bike area at Ruby Hill Park in the summer of 2016.

The Lakewood/Dry Gulch course is the premier disc golf destination in Denver.

The Lakewood/Dry Gulch Park course has concrete walks to provide connectivity between holes and excludes realignment costs after construction of the W Line forced the course into hibernation from 2009 to 2013.

Rising real estate values, new transit development and a growing population with different ideas of open-space fun are squeezing the land-intensive sport.
Step up to the tee pad. Consider wind speed and basket placement. Muzzle your ego. Visualize the disc in your hand crashing into those chains 400 feet away. Get in position. Rotate your hips. Release clean. Watch that disc fly off course and out of sight. Frantically try to remember if you bought the kind that floats.

Disc golf offers an addictive sort of challenge. Follies and flubs are soon forgotten, but the feeling of that “one nice shot” lingers. It’s what gets you back out to the course next weekend to see if you can recapture the magic.
Developing the infrastructure to meet the demands of both casual and diehard fans, that’s another story entirely. And in Denver, where the sport has been growing rapidly in the past five years, the challenges are mounting.

Last month, Denver Parks and Recreation published an “Existing Conditions Report” laying out the next 15 to 20 years of trials facing the city’s park system, including a fast-growing population with ever-changing open-space use preferences, and strategies for addressing them. The report, and the local media’s reportage surrounding its publication, highlighted disc golf as one of many emerging activities contending for park space and funding. “The city now boasts 3 disc golf courses [on public land],” the report reads. It also features a chart placing Denver above a 97-city national median with 0.45 courses per 100,000 residents.

A month before the report was published, however, a bold-lettered notice appeared at dgcoursereview.com on the page for Globeville Landing, the nine-hole course in north Denver that was built in 2003: “The city has cut down all of the trees and the course is gone for good to make way for the I-70 ditch. Sad day.”
The Lakewood/Dry Gulch course is the premier disc golf destination in Denver.
The City of Denver is just getting started on a $250 million-plus, neighborhood-spanning, flood-control project in north Denver. In that context, Globeville Landing Park is being fully redesigned to accommodate a new drainage system.

While the Globeville Landing course was far from a favorite among the local disc golf community, its removal shifts Denver below the Parks and Recreation report’s own 97-city median into the chart area reserved for “Increasingly underperforming cities nationally,” and it poses new questions to city administrators and disc golf proponents alike.

Camden Farmer, president of the Mile High Disc Golf Club, the largest organization dedicated to advancing the sport in the state of Colorado, has been fielding such questions on the group’s Facebook page for the past few weeks. “How about taking the money collected during [next season’s funding drive] and funding a course?” one user asked. Another initiated a poll: “Would you pay more for your MHDGC [membership] if it went to course development?”

“We have definitely advocated for more courses,” Farmer recently told Confluence Denver. The sport’s increasing popularity is putting a strain on the most popular courses in and around the city, and there is clearly a demand for more. “We’ve had discussions with Denver Parks and Recreation about the need,” he added.

Farmer and the MHDGC have rented out space and set up a temporary course in Ruby Hill Park three times, most recently in 2015, in an effort to drive serious discussions about getting it installed permanently. “It was innovative and beautiful,” Farmer says, “but the master plan for that park did not include a disc golf course.”

That land went to another “emerging interest” instead. Denver Parks and Recreation opened a $1.8 million, 7.5-acre mountain bike area at Ruby Hill Park in the summer of 2016.
Denver Parks and Recreation opened a $1.8 million, 7.5-acre mountain bike area at Ruby Hill Park in the summer of 2016.
Mark Tabor, assistant director of planning at Denver Parks and Recreation, says that there have been some informal internal conversations about a new disc golf course since the Globeville Landing course was removed, but that it’s “too early from our side to narrow down and have any sites selected.”

Even if a suitable site was apparent, funding for park improvements is highly competitive, according to Tabor. “When we have partners, even in a minor way, it helps implement some of these improvements,” he added, citing a recent partnership with a local club to get a new cricket pitch installed in Green Valley Ranch. In that case, the cricket club paid for the pitching pad, the only physical improvement necessary for the project, and Parks and Recreation did the installation.

Since 2015, however, the MHDGC has shifted focus. “Right now we haven't put the active pursuit of a new course as high of a priority as some of our other efforts,” Farmer said. Instead, the group is focusing on maintaining its home course, the 24-hole Bird’s Nest in Arvada; holding events; fundraising; pursuing 501(c)3 status; and boosting female membership.

“We do keep a course improvement and development fund that is already part of where the membership dollars are portioned each year,” Farmer says. “This general fund isn't large enough to install a course by itself.”

The MHDGC’s revenue comes primarily through $20 membership fees, assessed annually. Increasing interest in the sport is generating more cash for the club, but they are still short of the amount needed to fund a new course. The MHDGC is shooting for 600 members in 2017. Even if they reach that goal and put every cent of the fees together, the club wouldn’t have enough to match even conservative estimates for labor and equipment costs associated with a new course.

What it takes

Those conservative estimates pale in comparison to the $344,000 that the City of Denver spent on materials and installation for the 11-year-old, 21-hole course at Lakewood/Dry Gulch Park, commonly known as “Paco’s” because the first tee box sits in Paco Sanchez Park. That includes concrete walks to provide connectivity between holes and excludes realignment costs after construction of the W Line forced the course into hibernation from 2009 to 2013.

It also takes a significant investment of energy and time to get a new course built. Ronnie Ross, Brett Marshall, Desean Brown and Bill Askew founded the Basic Average Discers Communication Organization, or BADCO, in Denver in 1998. Ross says they spent five years attending various city meetings to push for a new course. “At one point, I met the president of the City Council, and she liked the idea,” he said.

On top of the start-up costs, a popular course requires continuous upkeep. Ross visits Paco’s every two months to shift around the baskets and give regular players some variety. He also says he gives out his phone number to his fellow disc golfers and the local police department just in case something happens at the course.

As a result of their efforts, the Lakewood/Dry Gulch course is the premier disc golf destination in Denver, according to Farmer. With 3 discs out of a possible 5, it commands the highest user rating of all the Denver courses on the authoritative dgcoursereview.com. Ross, who is also credited with designing the course, said he “wanted make a world-class course, with variety, distance and mature trees to give you obstacles.”

When it goes wrong

The other disc golf courses in Denver are far less popular, offering cautionary tales to any group considering a new course effort. Farmer says that he hasn’t even played the course at 42nd and Lisbon Park in Green Valley Ranch, which was installed in 2012. “I’ve heard it’s not a destination,” he said. “People aren’t excited about it.”

Likewise, Farmer never plays the 9-hole course on Regis University’s campus, even though he lives down the street and university administrators say it is open to the public.

The 10-year-old course at Regis is in disrepair, bordering on extinction. Several of the baskets have been removed during unrelated remodeling projects and were not replaced. “[The course] is really not up to par,” said Regis’s Assistant Director of Wellness and Recreation Brian Anderson. “It’s on my to-do list,” he added, “But it keeps sliding down.”

If you build it, will they come?

All this clarifies the underlying challenge for proponents of a new Denver disc golf course: Even if one of these local clubs drummed up a campaign and raised the funds for a new course in Denver, would they be able to claim an enticing enough piece of land to justify the effort and the expense?

Denver Parks and Recreation is in the process of converting water-intensive turf to more drought-tolerant spaces for sustainability reasons, according to Tabor. That means less and less space appropriate for a disc golf course is available every year.

Any new course in Denver would also have competition from the plethora of appealing options outside the city limits. “When it comes to what is desirable for a course and what would meet demand, people are looking to the mountain areas.” Farmer said. “You get elevation, water, and trees. That’s a lot harder to come by in Denver.”

 

Read more articles by Paul Karolyi.

Paul Karolyi is a writer and researcher based in Denver. He hosts and produces Changing Denver, the podcast about our city's physical spaces, how we make them and how they make us.
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