About half of Orange County’s 640-acre Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley is dedicated to golf – for a total of 54 holes dimpling three courses.
Now one of those public courses is on the chopping block, and golfers aren’t pleased. The county wants to convert the generically named Players Golf Course into more of a multi-use park by 2023.
“There are very few reasonably priced golf courses in Orange and Los Angeles counties,” said Costa Mesa resident Gary Bennett, a regular at Players. “Private courses cost triple the money.”
But Scott Thomas, planning and design manager for OC Parks, said the transformation would give residents 93 more acres of room to roam.
“Orange County is deficient in open space that is not encumbered by a single use,” Thomas said. “We envision walking paths and picnic tables for this area.”
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do – whose district includes Fountain Valley, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster – initiated the proposal in a staff report submitted March of 2018.
In 1999, when Players opened, Mile Square Golf Course LP signed a 40-year lease to run both it and the similarly priced Classics Golf Course – part of the original park when Mile Square debuted in 1969. The operator agreed to pay the county $3.1 million per year for both, according to the staff report.
Mile Square’s third course, David Baker Golf, is operated separately.
In 2017, an internal audit revealed the golf course’s operator underpaid rent to the county in the past decade by a combined $3.6 million.
After the audit, “MSGC stated that since the commencement of the current lease in 1999, decline in the golf market over the years has impacted overall revenue,” the staff report said.
The county reduced rent to $850,000 annually and gave the operator until January of 2021 to relinguish Players. MSGC will continue to operate Classics Golf Course.
Mile Square is one of 15 “urban regional parks” in Orange County, meaning those located in cities rather than the wilderness or at beaches. A park designated as regional covers at least 100 acres and generally attracts people who live within a five-mile radius, Thomas said.
Do described his district as starved for open space.
“Santa Ana kids have to go to other cities to use parks,” he said. “Youth groups can camp overnight at Mile Square Park. A lot of Santa Ana kids have never gone camping before. You should see the looks on their faces.”
Still, avid golfers complain the county’s plan has not been transparent.
“These decisions are being made without public input,” said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Assn.
Two community meetings this year did not allow for speakers, instead featuring stations at which attendees could view design boards. And a survey of what residents would like to see failed to list golf – which, despite its omission, still ranked first place thanks to write-ins.
“The January meeting got way out of control very quickly,” said Fountain Valley Councilwoman Cheryl Brothers. “People didn’t feel heard. The county could have handled things better.”
Kessler conceded that golfing numbers nationwide have declined over the past decade – a downturn largely owed to aging baby boomers and competition from other popular sports. Participation peaked in 2005 at about 30 million, according to the National Golf Foundation, dropping to 24 million today.
“But Orange County does not fit that profile,” Kessler said. “Here, demand exceeds supply. The Mile Square courses are so busy you can’t get a tee time.”
Kessler said people drive as many as 25 miles to golf at Players, bringing money from outside the county.
“Walking trails are lovely, but no one is going to travel for them,” he said. “The county is going to spend a lot of money repurposing this land, while at the same time losing green fees.”
But Do argued that “parks should not just be for people who can afford fees.”
“Golfers have disposable income, but low-income residents don’t,” he said. “This land can be used for more than just a few golfers walking around.”
Brothers, too, said she likes the idea of a passive park, whether self-sustaining or not.
“It’s up to government to preserve open space,” she said. “And open space is more critical than ever – as demonstrated every weekend by the number of families that come to Mile Square Park.”
Preliminary blueprints focus on creating an “urban forest” with hiking and biking trails meandering among native plants. But there is also mention of a cultural center – something Brothers hopes does not materialize.
“Taking up space with yet another building is inappropriate,” she said. “Once open space is gone, it’s gone.”
What is now Mile Square Regional Park was a landing field for the Navy from 1942 until the the county took over the land in 1967. Fountain Valley leases 150 acres there for its Recreation & Sports Park.
“We are open to a conversation about leasing more acreage,” Brothers said.
As a master plan takes shape, the county will continue to gather public input until the end of the year, Do said.
In the meantime, despite their vocal objections, the golfers who know and love Players are starting to feel resigned to its demise.
“My experience with government is that once the train has left the station, there’s no turning back,” Kessler said. “Regardless of public reaction, they’ve made their decision.”
For more information or to provide input, go to ocparks.com/parks/mile/expansion, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 714-973-6865.
Source: Orange County Register