Parks Update: Golf, Birds, River Art

Play at city golf courses increasing

Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (Nov. 17, 2009): With the golf season coming to an end, the city’s Park Advisory Commission got a status report from Ann Arbor’s director of golf, Doug Kelly. He did not, however, provide a recipe for his chicken salad, which he added to the menu this summer at the two city-owned courses. Then again, no one asked – but someone did ask when the golf courses were expected to break even.

The sign for the city's Huron Hills Golf Course at the corner of Huron River Parkway and Huron River Drive. (Photo by the writer.)

The sign for the city's Huron Hills Golf Course at the corner of Huron River Parkway and Huron River Drive. Though the city's Leslie Park Golf Course closed for the season on Sunday, Huron Hills will be open "until the snow flies," according to its website. (Photo by the writer.)

Also at the meeting, PAC honored Roger Wykes, the 2009 Natural Area Preservation volunteer of the year. Wykes helps out with the city’s breeding bird survey – commissioners heard details about that project from ornithologist Dee Dea Armstrong.

And an artist who’s spending this year as a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan made a pitch for an art installation along the Huron River – a project that he envisions will help build a bridge between the university and the community of Ann Arbor.

Golf Courses

At their October meeting, PAC members got a quarterly budget update and spent much of their discussion focused on the financial performance of the Huron Hills and Leslie Park golf courses. [See Chronicle coverage: "Quarterly Budget Update"] At this month’s meeting, they got an update from Doug Kelly, the city’s director of golf. Prior to his report, two people spoke during the time set aside for public commentary.

Public Commentary

Paul Bancel: Identifying himself as a member of the city’s golf advisory task force and president of the Ann Arbor Golf Association, Bancel thanked several people on the city’s staff as well as members of the Park Advisory Commission. He invited PAC to a kickoff being planned this spring by the golf association, which is “adopting” Huron Hills Golf Course via the city’s Adopt-A-Park program. Huron Hills is more than a golf course, he said, it’s one of the city’s signature parks. He also pointed out that Leslie Park Golf Course was rated this year by Golf Digest magazine as the top municipal golf course in Michigan. But more needs to be done to support the courses, he said. As an example, he said it’s a shame that local groups like the Ann Arbor Rotary and Kiwanis hold their golf outings at courses outside of the city. He urged commissioners who were involved in other groups, like Leslie Science Center or the Ann Arbor skatepark, to consider holding fundraisers at the city’s golf courses.

Jane Lumm: Lumm is also a member of the Ann Arbor Golf Association, and said she’d been impressed by the presentation that Doug Kelly, the city’s director of golf, had made at the association’s recent annual dinner. Nearly two years ago, when the city decided to invest in the two golf courses, everyone knew it would take time to turn them around, she said. Saying that the city can see that its investment is paying off, Lumm cautioned that the commitment needs to be a long-term one.

Doug Kelly, Ann Arbor's director of golf, during his presentation at the Nov. 17 Park Advisory Commission. Sitting next to him is Andrew Walton, golf course supervisor. (Photo by the writer.)

Doug Kelly, Ann Arbor's director of golf, during his presentation at the Nov. 17 Park Advisory Commission. Sitting next to him is Andrew Walton, golf course supervisor. (Photo by the writer.)

Presentation by the City’s Director of Golf

Doug Kelly oversees Huron Hills Golf Course and Leslie Park Golf Course, the two city-owned courses that cover more than 275 acres. The city employs four full-time staff year-round for the courses, he said, plus between 45-55 part-time, seasonal workers. In addition to himself, other full-time staff are Andrew Walton, the golf course supervisor, and two groundskeepers – Scott Spooner at Leslie Park, and Mark Wanshon at Huron Hills.

The two courses are distinct, Kelly said. Built in 1965, Leslie Park is a championship course for serious golfers, ranked No. 1 this year for municipal courses in Michigan by Golf Digest magazine. It’s a destination for travel groups from across the state, he said, and the site of more than 14 tournaments annually.

Huron Hills is considered the city’s best-kept secret, Kelly said. It’s a shorter course, easy to maintain and popular with junior golfers, families and walkers, who appreciate the park-like setting. The course is excellent for giving lessons, he said, and is vital for growing the game in the city.

Kelly described 2007 as a “season of evaluation.” This was the year that the city hired James Keegan, managing principal of Golf Convergence, to evaluate the performance – financial and otherwise – of the two courses, and make recommendations for change. The consultant had been hired in the wake of declining revenues and play at the courses, and debate over whether the land should be put to different use. In his report, Keegan projected that the courses would continue to lose money for at least six years.

In May of 2008, city council approved a plan to reinvest in the courses, using funds from the park maintenance and improvement tax. Kelly described 2008 as a “season of positive change,” with increased marketing, new maintenance equipment, lower rates for golfers, a liquor license secured for Leslie Park, and an improvement in the attitude of staff, who had previously been perceived as arrogant, Kelly said. All of this contributed to an increase in use, he said. From 2007 to 2008, rounds played at Leslie Park increased by 37%, while Huron Hills saw a 14% jump in rounds. By comparison, in southeast Michigan, overall play was down 3%.

Kelly was hired earlier this year, and Andrew Walton – a three-time winner of the City of Ann Arbor Men’s Championship in golf – was named golf course supervisor. Kelly managed Lansing’s four municipal courses for eight years, and has served as manager at several private country clubs as well. Walton brings an in-depth knowledge of the city and its courses, Kelly said, which complements his own management experience in other cities.

They’re focusing on three areas, Kelly said: customer service, marketing and course conditions. They’ve set in place customer service standards, including requirements for employees’ personal appearance and professionalism. They’re marketing both to attract new golfers and retain current ones, with tools including a monthly newsletter, The Nature of Golf. Email and the web, including social networking sites, are their main marketing tools, he said. Finally, their work on course conditioning includes better general cleanup, improved yardage markers, and tree plantings, among other things.

Kelly listed several enhancements at the courses during 2009. At Leslie Park, new restrooms, interior renovations at the clubhouse, better rangering to improve the pace of play, prescribed burns by the city’s Natural Area Preservation staff were among the improvements he cited. At Huron Hills, the city added new irrigation controls, power cart rentals for golfers, and an emphasis on special events. The golf course also started offering “anytime” rates for adults and youth, a discounted junior pass, and special “kids play free” nights to draw in families – Sundays and Fridays, after 3 p.m. They’ve also increased their instructional offerings at Huron Hills.

This chart shows the number of golf rounds played at Huron Hills and Leslie Park courses from 2004 to 2009.

This chart from Doug Kelly's PowerPoint presentation shows the number of golf rounds played at Huron Hills and Leslie Park courses from 2004 to 2009.

In comparing the 2009 season to 2008 at Leslie Park, Kelly noted that they opened the course three weeks earlier, which had an impact. Golf rounds were up 16% for the year. He compared that performance to overall rounds played in southeast Michigan, which declined 2.6%. Total revenues increased 11%.

At Huron Hills, in 2009 the course opened one week early, Kelly said, and rounds increased 30% compared to 2008. Total revenues increased 13%.

Overall, more than 52,000 total rounds were played in 2009, Kelly said – the most that’s been played in six years. He noted that the courses have shown increases over the past two years. [For historical context, in 1998, 85,342 total rounds were played at the two courses – until the city began its current push, rounds had been in sharp decline.]

Looking ahead at 2010, Kelly ticked through several initiatives:

  • the addition of “wee tees” for kids at Huron Hills, plus a special seven-hole rate for juniors that would let them play the front seven holes, and eliminate the need to cross the busy intersection at Huron River Drive.
  • more power carts at Huron Hills, plus more pro-shop offerings and food and beverage choices at both courses.
  • the creation of in-house leagues at both courses.
  • improvements to entrances at both courses, to enhance curb appeal.
  • enhanced instructional programs.
  • more special events and tournaments, including a Good Friday golf scramble, a father/child tournament and a Park & Recreation scholarship fundraiser.

His staff will also be working on getting the courses certified through the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program and the National Audubon Society.

Questions from Commissioners

Several commissioners praised Kelly’s work, but had questions for him. Gwen Nystuen wanted to know the protocol for using chemicals on the course grounds. Kelly said they work with the county water resources commissioner, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program, making sure they are following best practices for the types of chemicals used and the frequency of use.

Tim Berla asked Kelly to give a ballpark estimate for when the courses might break even, and how many rounds of golf it would require to get there. Commissioner Julie Grand, who also serves on the city’s golf advisory task force, said that their initial focus was to increase the number of rounds being played. Revenues haven’t shown a corresponding increase because they wanted to bring people back by offering affordable rates, she said.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said that throughout southeast Michigan, golfers are looking for good deals. To be competitive in this economic environment, rates need to be low.

[During budget discussions at PAC's October meeting, Smith had reminded commissioners that the courses continued to be subsidized from the city’s general fund reserves, and that the city expected it would take about six years for them to break even meet their financial goals. In fiscal 2009, Leslie Park Golf Course had revenues of $780,979 and expenses of $904,262. Huron Hills revenues were $247,744, with expenses of $471,116.]

Mike Anglin, one of two city council representatives on PAC, praised the amount of public involvement that’s taken place regarding the courses. With the down economy, he said, people would be looking for local recreational opportunities.

Scott Rosencrans wanted to know what kind of snacks a golfer might find at Leslie Park and Huron Hills. At Leslie Park, the staples are hot dogs and hamburgers, Kelly said. But they’ve been trying to add healthier fare like chicken salad sandwiches – “Well, somewhat healthier,” he conceded. He said he personally made the chicken salad in the clubhouse kitchen at Leslie Park – to make croissant sandwiches, which are also sold at Huron Hills. They’re looking to expand their food offerings next season.

Commissioner David Barrett asked about the merchandise, noting that sales hadn’t taken off but that the markup was probably good. Kelly said they hadn’t pushed merchandise because they were developing new logos for the courses – when those were finished, they’ll be on hats, shirts and other merchandise. When Leslie Park got the top ranking in Golf Digest, staff made a special logo, and merchandise with that logo sold well, he said.

Commissioner Sam Offen asked whether the city had any formal arrangement with Miles of Golf, an Ann Arbor business that Kelly had mentioned during his presentation. Kelly said that Miles of Golf is the key tournament sponsor for the two city courses – the business provides financial backing in exchange for its name on promotional materials – but there’s no formal agreement. He noted that Doug Davis, the co-founder of the business, has an email database of over 8,000 contacts, and sends out announcements related to the city’s golf courses, which Kelly said is helpful.

Roger Wykes at the Nov. 17 Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting, where he was honored as the 2009 Natural Area Preservation volunteer of the year. (Photo by the writer.)

Roger Wykes at the Nov. 17 Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting, where he was honored as the 2009 Natural Area Preservation volunteer of the year. (Photo by the writer.)

Birds in the Parks, Breeding and Otherwise

At PAC’s November meeting, Dave Borneman, manager of the city’s Natural Area Preservation program, read a proclamation honoring Roger Wykes for his volunteer work with NAP. Speaking briefly to PAC after the presentation, Wykes quipped: “It’s a little like Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s more about what I’ll do in the future than what I’ve done so far.”

Though Wykes also participates in the area’s butterfly counts, it’s his work counting birds that provided a segue into a presentation by ornithologist Dee Dea Armstrong, who gave an overview of NAP’s breeding bird survey, for which Weiss is a volunteer. (Marshall Nature Area is his park of choice for the survey.)

Armstrong said that volunteers who help with the survey typically can recognize more than 100 birds by song alone, and that they usually spend between 10 to 20 hours per season – from late May through mid-July – collecting qualitative and quantitative data from a specific park.

The city has been conducting this survey since 1995, and has surveyed over 40 of the city’s parks, natural areas and city-owned property, as well as some land that’s being considered for future acquisition.

Based on the survey, Armstrong said, the city has found 124 species of birds present during the breeding season, plus another 100 species that use city parks and properties as migratory stop-off sites. She passed out a detailed field checklist to commissioners – a pamphlet that lists all of the species found in the city. For each species, the list gives a status rating of 1 to 3:

  1. observed during the breeding season
  2. probable breeder
  3. confirmed breeder

The list also identifies an “abundance code” for each species: Rare, Uncommon, Common or Abundant. For example, the red-breasted nuthatch is rare, and a confirmed breeder. [.PDF file of the Field Checklist of Ann Arbor's Breeding Birds]

The city uses “watch lists” developed by three groups – the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, the Audobon Society and Partners in Flight – to identify birds that are on their way to becoming endangered, or that are already rare. In Ann Arbor, 11 of the breeding season species are on one or more of the watch lists.

How is this information used? Armstrong gave an example of how the data they collect is used in management of the parks. In Dolph Nature Area, for example, migratory birds that nest there need shrubs to protect them from predators, so the staff doesn’t do intensive shrub removal in that area. “We keep things gentle in Dolph,” she said.

As another example, Armstrong said the staff schedules its controlled burns in natural areas during times that take into account the breeding season.

Armstrong also cited a change in the way that acres of city-owned land are cared for at the Wheeler Service Center and the Ann Arbor Airport. In the past, those properties would have been mowed regularly. Now, much of the land isn’t mowed from late May through early July, giving birds like the bobolinks a nesting cycle there.

The city prints these cards to spread a message about keeping dogs on a leash in Ann Arbor's parks.

The city prints these cards to spread a message about keeping dogs on a leash in Ann Arbor's parks.

There are other ways that NAP and the city try to protect birds,  Armstrong said. Her examples included Ann Arbor’s participation in the Great Lakes Safe Passage Days, which city council approved in March of 2009. The resolution encourages occupants of tall buildings to turn out their lights or lower their blinds at night during the migratory season – March 15 to May 3 and Aug. 15 to Oct. 31 – to prevent birds from getting disoriented as they pass through the city.

Armstrong also brought some samples of information cards that the city makes available to explain why dogs should be kept on a leash in city parks. Reason #5: “Wildlife may not survive an encounter with a free-roaming dog. Even a very friendly and obedient dog may innocently destroy the homes of ground-nesting birds or stress smaller mammals.” [Reason #1: "It's the law."]

Commissioner Questions

Rosencrans asked whether there were any particular species that are in trouble in Ann Arbor. Armstrong said they’re keeping an eye on the blue-winged warbler, found at Marshall Nature Area. The habitat there is being kept up, she said, but the bird might be experiencing challenges outside the city.

Rosencrans followed up by asking whether any species were doing particularly well. Armstrong cited the bobolinks, since changes had been made in mowing at the airport and Wheeler. Creating additional acreage of grassland habitat has helped their breeding. “It’s actually rather extraordinary,” she said. “They’re doing quite well.”

Responding to a query about how PAC can formulate policy to make a better environment for the birds, Armstrong said that having large, single parcels of habitat is better than having several small, separate parcels. That’s a factor to consider in land acquisition and maintenance, she said.

Rosencrans said that he carried the cards telling why dogs should be on a leash, and that they were a friendly and effective way to deal with someone whose dog is off-leash. “I use them a lot,” he said. Tim Berla suggested also posting signs more prominently in the parks, reminding people of the leash law.

Art on the River?

At PAC’s October meeting, William Dennisuk spoke briefly during the time set aside for public comment. This month, he returned with a formal presentation about his proposed art project on the Huron River.

Originally from Detroit, he now lives in Finland but is a visiting artist and lecturer this academic year at the University of Michigan. When he first came here, Dennisuk heard people talk about the town/gown divide, and so he decided to do a project that would cross those boundaries.

He showed commissioners several examples of public art projects that transform or add to the environment – including the Wave Field, a landscape art project by Maya Lin that’s located on UM’s north campus. Some of these projects use ephermeral materials to have a kind of dialogue with nature, he said.

Dennisuk cited several motivations for temporary installations of public art. They include giving people a new way to see a familiar environment, creating points of contemplation or moments of reprieve, forming destinations for visitors to explore, and bridging the divide between nature and human beings.

He showed commissioners sketches of the kind of work he has in mind – examples of previous sculptures on his website, shaped like vessels, are evocative of the concepts he described at PAC’s meeting. Each work would be between 6 to 8 feet tall, attached to a concrete base that would be covered in natural stones.

City staff that he’d met with directed him to the commission, Dennisuk told PAC members. He was proposing an interdisciplinary public art project that would primarily be located along the pathways between Argo Pond and Gallup Park, as well as in the Huron River along that stretch. There was the possibility to create maps of the artwork’s locations and provide the maps to people at the city’s canoe liveries, he said.

The project would be funded by students and artists who participate, he said, but they needed permission to install the artwork. He was hoping that could happen in April, with the work remaining in place through the summer before being removed.

For the work to be placed in the river, he identified four potential locations: 1) on Argo Pond, on the opposite side of the pond from the canoe livery or, alternatively, next to the livery; 2) under the Broadway Street bridge, or just beyond it, next to Riverside Park; 3) in Nichols Arboretum; and 4) in Gallup Park, near an island between two walking bridges. Dennisuk said he’d already completed a lengthy application to the state Department of Environmental Quality – he’d need the DEQ’s permission for work located in the river. In addition to the Huron River pieces, he hopes to place additional artwork on UM’s campus, including in the School of Music’s piano-shaped pond.

In general, the work would be minimally intrusive, and designed to be sensitive to the natural environment, Dennisuk said. The idea would be to return the sites to their natural condition when the artwork is removed.

Commissioner Questions

Sam Offen wanted to know what would happen if the community liked this project so much that they wanted the artwork to remain. That’s happened before, Dennisuk said – a similar project of his in Japan was ultimately purchased.

Offen also was concerned about rowers or people in canoes and kayaks colliding with the artwork. He asked what the reaction was from parks management. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said that Cheryl Saam, supervisor for the liveries, had initially been concerned. But there are places along the river that are out of the way, he said. Now, Saam is envisioning a river art tour.

David Barrett asked if Dennisuk has spoken to the rowing community, which trains at Argo Pond. Dennisuk said that part of the process would be open to public input. He said he’d tried to identify places that wouldn’t interfere with other activities on the river.

Saying that the clock was ticking for him, as he needed to finalize some class schedules for next semester, he asked whether PAC could provide some kind of provisional approval for the project. Scott Rosencrans said he was interested in getting more information, but didn’t feel like they’d heard enough specifics to give approval of any kind. He urged Dennisuk to provide additional details to both PAC members and city staff.

Present: John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, David Barrett, Scott Rosencrans, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Next meeting: Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]


  1. By Marvin Face
    November 23, 2009 at 9:44 pm | permalink

    I’m pretty impressed with Doug Kelly and his staff. They’ve really started to professionally manage the courses, make people feel welcome, and connect with the local golfers. I always felt the City let the courses manage themselves for a number of years and you can see the results. These guys seem to really care about thier stewardship and improvement of a great City asset.

  2. By mr dairy
    November 23, 2009 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    Ah, the nebulous “City”. And who, what person, which highly placed top city manager allowed the golf courses to just “manage themselves for a number of years” while claiming that they were in the black. Just so that manager could lay claim to achieving the highest level of the Peter Principle.

  3. November 26, 2009 at 9:27 am | permalink

    I have always thought 18 holes is too many for a round of golf. The courses should offer 6, 12 and 18 hole rates for seniors and juniors. Six holes can be played in an hour and a half which could easily be fit into a long lunch hour. Great job reporting Mary and thanks as well to the dedicated volunteers that serve on these important City committees.

  4. By UM88
    November 26, 2009 at 10:16 am | permalink

    I sincerely hope PAC recommends NOT putting any art in the river. The one place where one can go to experience NATURAL beauty and get away from all the man made art, good and bad. All the art placed around town varies, some I like, much of it is some horrible attempt at who knows what. Some may like it, some may not. Why pollute the natural Huron with someones personal idea of what should be there. Can’t we have a spot to escape mans’ bad ideas if we want? Is the river not good enough that we need an “artist” to decorate it?

    Who pays to maintain it? What if its vandalized? Spray painted with obscenities? Who pays for a crew to go out and powerwash it?
    That we take already scarce maintenance funds away from parks that need work now.

    Leave art out of the river.

  5. By Julie
    November 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    I have to say I agree with UM88. Part of the majestic beauty of the Huron is that one can NOT see the hand of man while kayaking it’s waters. Please don’t change that. I don’t need art in the Huron River. Art downtown… that I love.

  6. By larry kramer
    November 28, 2009 at 9:16 pm | permalink

    I remember when someone was arrested for chipping on the practice green at Leslie. It would take 6 hours to play a round. My group of golfers left for 10 years!

    It will be good to come back to an old friend!