Ellen DiIorio, a resident of Union County, New Jersey, had always dreamed of building a first-class archery range. But while the county Parks Department was open to her idea, there was no good place to put it. That is, until Union County decided to shut down the municipally owned Oak Ridge Golf Course earlier this year. Suddenly, 67 acres were up for grabs. The county turned the whole site into a public park for biking and walking, and let DiIorio put an archery range on the old practice putting green.
It was a good trade, environmentally speaking. Golf courses consume vast quantities of water, and it takes a lot of pesticide to keep 18 fairways looking neat and green. For the county, converting the golf course into Oak Ridge Park was a money saver, too. The 72-year-old course needed at least $5 million worth of improvements. In its last year of operation, it turned in a $410,000 loss. (Union County golfers still have two other public courses to choose from.)
More golf-to-park conversions may be coming. The sport of golf has been hit hard by the economy, as duffers balk at paying the high greens fees charged by some private courses. Meanwhile, cash-strapped local governments are cutting back at municipal courses. In 2006, for the first time in recent memory, golf-course closures exceeded openings. In 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation, only 72 new courses opened, while 106 closed.
Not that golf is going away. But in many American communities, it is being viewed more as a luxury than as a public service. The Parks Board in Richmond, Indiana, recently voted to turn the 85-year-old Glen Miller links from a nine-hole course into a three-hole practice facility, with the rest of the space given over to general recreation. In North Las Vegas, Nevada, golfers played their last round at the Craig Ranch municipal course in May. The site is to become a 135-acre regional park, with a children's play area, a dog park, picnic grounds and trails set to open next summer.
In New Jersey, DiIorio's archery club has been a hit. More than 600 residents of Union County and surrounding jurisdictions have paid a $45 annual fee to aim their bows where golfers used to line up their putts. DiIorio is thrilled to finally have a place to practice and teach others her sport. But she admits she feels a little sad for golfers. "I was in conflict myself," she says. "My husband is a golfer. He loved to golf at Oak Ridge.""