(From the MyPhillyGolf.com archives: This story
originally ran April 18, 2014.
Since then, no decision has been reached about the fate of the
It has been almost a year
and a half since Mike Cirba, the unofficial point man
for a group calling itself Friends of Cobb’s Creek Golf Course, went public with the dream of restoring the
city-owned golf course in West Philadelphia to its original 1916 luster.
What has happened since
Nothing. Plenty. It depends on your perspective.
Not a shovel of dirt has
been turned at Cobb’s Creek and won’t be for months -- years, really -- if
ever. The wheels of progress (and bulldozers) grind
slowly, especially when city hall is involved. But Cirba
and Friends of Cobb’s Creek (FOCC) are hopeful, even encouraged, because the $14
million restoration project is under serious consideration by the city.
"I think we’ll know
something in the next six months, good or bad," Cirba
said recently, when we met at Cobb’s Creek. "We are optimistic."
When you talk to the city, brace
for a lesson in the harsh political and logistical realities involved in
getting a project like this done, even when they like it.
"A lot of things would have to line up," said a high-ranking official in the
Parks and Recreation Department, who has been on top of the Cobb’s project
since the beginning. "It’s like
hitting a 1-iron 250 yards down the middle. How often does that happen?"
If the restoration ever does
come to fruition, Cobb’s Creek would be turned into one of the very good, maybe
great, municipal golf courses in America, ideally worthy of being mentioned in
the same conversation with U.S Open municipal venues like Bethpage Black or
That might be getting
carried away, but at the least Cobb’s Creek would become a first-rate
tournament course by any measure, with teaching and practice facilities. The Golf Association of Philadelphia
(GAP) has plans on the drawing board to move its headquarters to the new,
improved Cobb’s Creek.
The project’s supporters also
believe that a vastly improved Cobb’s Creek complex would benefit the city in financial
ways. Having a quality course that
close to Center City would be one more lure for attracting conventions and
tourists to the city. That could
the Malvern-based architect who is designing 2016 Olympics course is Rio de
Janeiro, is such a believer that he and his design partner, Jim Wagner, were
willing to draw up a restoration master plan pro-bono, in the hopes that it might
help set the project in motion.
Process, Politics, Procrastination
While the vision and inspiration
for the restoration came from FOCC, the formal proposal to the city was
submitted by a 501c3 non-profit foundation that was created for the specific purposes
of undertaking the project and, ultimately, managing the Cobb’s Creek for years
Although a few details about
the unnamed foundation have leaked within the local golf community, Cirba and the city are reluctant to divulge much at this point,
other than to acknowledge it was established by a very rich family that would like
to put to some of its millions to good use in the service of the city and its
"They are very civic-mind
and they are looking to leave a legacy," said Cirba.
Even under the best-case
scenarios, there are significant obstacles that must be overcome to happen. More
on those in a moment. First a
Here’s a story from the Inquirer, after FOCC’s initial meeting with the city in
Here is the Bausch Collection of photos of Cobb’s
Here is a video of Cirba at Cobb’s Creek outlining the potential project:
When that video was made in
December 2012, the funding for the restoration had not yet been lined up. The restoration was still very much in the
That all changed when Cirba met Chris Lange, an accomplished local amateur
golfer, winner of the Philadelphia Open (2004) and a three-time winner of the
Philadelphia Amateur (1984, 1993, 1994).
More importantly, Lange is a
successful and well-connected investment advisor, not to mention former college
roommate and friend of Peter Hill, Chairman and CEO of Billy
Casper Golf, which manages four of
the six city-owned courses (Cobb’s Creek/Karakung,
John F. Byrne, FDR).
Lange liked the idea for the
restoration and set about trying to line up funding – private funding. After all, from the very first meeting
with FOCC, city officials were intrigued by FOCC’s big idea, they made it clear
that there was no money in the city budget to take on such a project. If it was going to happen, it was going
to be thanks to private money, not the taxpayers’. With the cost of the restoration estimated
at $14 million, that seemed...well, daunting, bordering on unlikely.
But Lange didn’t give up
and, eventually, he found funding. (Lange
declined to be interviewed for this story, saying in an email "not yet." )
The press conference that wasn’t
There was a time last June,
when the national golf media was in town for the U.S. Open at Merion, when
Lange and the folks behind the foundation were so encouraged they were all set
to hold a press conference at Cobb’s Creek to announce the project. City officials quietly sent word that they
should hold off.
What happened, evidently, is
that the city had begun to realize it couldn’t just sign off on the Cobb’s
Creek restoration project quite so fast – not even with private money behind
it and a non-profit foundation overseeing it.
What the city would need was
a formal proposal from the non-profit foundation, outlining everything,
although technically, the proposal was unsolicited. Within weeks, the city got what it
Similar arrangements with
non-profits are not unheard of without such a formal proposal. The city happily turned over Walnut Lane
GC in Roxborough to former Temple golf coach John
McDonald, to be operated as a Philadelphia First Tee facility. And Bob Wheeler, a former Philly cop,
formed a non-profit to run Juniata GC in Northeast Philadelphia, after the city
failed miserably for years.
But those take-overs were
penny-ante compared to proposed the Cobb’s Creek restoration project. The $14 million price tag, and the
long-term implications for the course, the city and golfers, changed
everything. The city couldn’t agree
to a no-bid deal of that magnitude without proceeding cautiously, touching all
the bases. It also needed to send
the foundation’s proposal over to the city Legal Department, where more than one
idea has met its undoing.
Sticking points, obstacles and unknowns
In the master plan proposal,
in return for the $14 million investment, the non-profit seeks a 99-year lease
to manage the Cobb’s Creek. A
century, basically. That gives the city pause.
The city, he said, does not
have an ironclad formula for the length of such leases; it would have to be
negotiated. A lot would depend on
the amount of capital investment and potential return to the city.
Could the city’s demand for a
shorter-term lease, even if it agreed to 50 or 60 years, potentially cause the
non-profit to withdraw its offer? Yes,
said the city official.
What about cutting the cost
of the restoration, to reduce the amount of money the non-profit foundation
puts at risk?
"If you start scaling back
the renovation, are you defeating the whole purpose?" asked the city official.
Sticking points, obstacles and unknowns, Part II
There is another major
obstacle. Historically, one of the maddening
problems at Cobb’s Creek has been that every time we get a major rain event,
several of the lower holes – No. 3, 4, 5, 6 – are under water. They flood because they are bisected by
the namesake Cobb’s Creek as wends its way through the property.
Plain and simple, without addressing
the flooding, once and for all, there is no restoration project. What’s the point?
Fortunately, Hanse’s master plan addresses the flooding. How? By tying together the restoration with
the federally-mandated Stormwater Management plan,
for which the city is on the hook (no doubt with federal aid), with or without
the restoration. The cost of that
work is said to be in the $5 million neighborhood, raising the total cost of
the project to almost $20 million.
Hanse’s plan is good; the timing of the restoration
apparently isn’t. The Water
Department’s 20-25-year Stormwater Management plan isn’t
specific about when it will address that section of Cobb’s Creek.
"Huge wrinkle," said the
The Good, the Bad, the Reality
If all this comes off as
discouraging, it is not intended as such.
It is intended as laying out the realties, political and otherwise, that
the Cobb’s Creek restoration project faces.
Indeed, on a positive note,
the city official said there is "not any sentiment against it" politically from City Council or Mayor
Michael Nutter. Nutter will be long
gone from office before Cobb’s Creek is restored.
Of course, the political
winds could shift, especially if the cost of green fees at Cobb’s Creek were to
increase dramatically (currently $46 weekdays/with cart, $51 weekends/with
cart) as a result of the restoration, prompting howls of protests from longtime
"Could this even survive as premium-priced
public course where it’s located?" wondered the city official.
What kind of premium rate,
like $100 or $125? Is that what
they’re talking about?
No, not necessarily, he
said, but how could the rates not increase after a $14 million restoration? For the record, Cirba
and others advocate affordable rates for locals versus higher rates for convention-goers
and FOCC undertook the Cobb’s Creek project several years ago, they did so as
golf course architecture enthusiasts, excited about the prospect of uncovering and polishing a jewel. These days, Cirba
is no less enthusiastic, even if he is wiser and warier.
During our recent meeting at
Cobb’s Creek, he recalled the first day in 2008 when he and a dozen or so guys
from FOCC walked the property at Cobb’s Creek, imagining what might be. Afterward, they retreated to a
neighborhood tavern to talk it over and meet with Ron Prichard, a local golf
course architect who specializes in restorations.
"Ron sat down with us
knowing we are all arm-chair architects," said Cirba.
"He listened, then said, "This will be good for you guys getting to see what
the real world is like trying to get these projects done.""
and the city official believe there will be an answer from the city, thumbs up
or thumbs down, within six months, certainly no later than the end of the year.
"We are optimistic," said Cirba, upbeat.
So is the city official, in
his own way. "There have been brainstorms about this (restoring Cobb’s) going
back 15 years and this is as close as anybody has ever gotten," he said. "Nothing is insurmountable. But there are some real challenges