The Herald, Sharon, PA Published Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001


Is free golf at park in jeopardy?

By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor

When giving tours of the area to visitors, Shenango Valley residents almost always place Buhl Farm Golf Course at the top of the must-see sites.

Over the years the Hermitage park's course has gained a cult following for being the only free golf course in the United States.

While there's no immediate threat, the park will have to start charging green fees, in looking at the park's financial future that may change, said Jim Feeney, president of the F.H. Buhl Trustees which oversees the park.

"Free golf isn't in jeopardy now,'' Feeney said. "But in the next few years, if things don't turn around economically, I'd say free golf would be in jeopardy.''

Even after slashing 25 percent from its capital and operating budgets this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, the park's operating funds will be $160,000 in the red. Annual budgets for the park typically total about $900,000, Feeney said.

Planned road paving projects were cut from the current budget along with deferring the purchase of vehicles and equipment. Limited wage increases were enacted for park employees but a hiring freeze was imposed.

A lackluster economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are blamed for stifling donations and investment income the park has come to rely on. Currently, the park gets less than half of its total income from investment proceeds.

"At one time the entire park was supported with investment income,'' Feeney said. "It's not that the investments haven't grown, it's that the cost of maintaining the park has grown substantially over the years.''

Buhl Farm generates other income through fees such as for shelter rentals and funds produced at a driving range next to the golf course. But that hasn't been enough to offset mounting costs.

Foundations, trusts, businesses and individuals who regularly fund the park have had to scale back their donations due to the economic downturn. To shore up finances, the trustees are looking to start a fund drive next year which will would become an annual event.

"I think the acceptance of the park as a No. 1 community asset and the programs it offers is something we want to preserve,'' Feeney said. "Due to the economic downturn and continuing escalating costs we're on a collision course. This is a signal we've got to increase funding.''

Approaching its 100th anniversary, the park needs repairs and upgrades such as for storm runoff water and renovating the Casino -- the park's most recognizable structure.

"We have an architect looking at the Casino,'' Feeney said. "The cost of refurbishing it would be substantial. However, we believe it's an asset that needs to be preserved because it's the focal point of the park.''

An oasis for relaxation, walking, jogging and bicycling, the park is the home of Buhl Day -- an annual Labor Day community gathering that attracts about 50,000. Children's programs are also offered throughout the year such as art classes, shows, tennis and golf along with teen dances and youth activities during the summer.

But it's the golf course that has gained a national audience which soon could go international. Canadian Broadcasting Co. is doing a documentary in the spring on golf courses throughout the world. Buhl Farm Golf Course will be among those featured on the show.

Affectionately called "Dum Dum'' by locals, the moniker is believed to stem from the relatively easy play on the short nine-hole course which has no sand traps. But it's popularity has never been stronger. Last year, roughly 40,000 rounds were played at the Buhl Farm-maintained links.

"When you have that many rounds of golf, the course takes a real beating,'' Feeney said.

To help defray costs, the park will get more aggressive in seeking donations from players but no mandatory fees are planned.

"It's an image thing we're trying to maintain,'' Feeney said. "It's been free all of these years and we'd like to keep it that way.''

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