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City takes swing at reviving golf game

Officials look to Colwood acquisition to get sport out of hole


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - John Zoller, Vicki Nakashima and Warren Jimenez are part of the Portland Golf Advisory committee, which will promote the sport to younger and minority players.Three months after the city’s aquisition of the Colwood National Golf Club in Northeast Portland, the city is looking to use it to attract a younger, more diverse population of golfers to save the future of the game.

“Most golfers are like me — the majority of us are gray-haired and male,” says John Zoller, director of the Portland Public Golf program for more than 25 years.

“The game needs a boost. We need a way to bring other people — more gender diversity, more cultural diversity, especially the young kids,” he says.

Located in the heart of the Cully neighborhood, Colwood will be the city’s testing ground to try new incentives and make golf accessible for underrepresented demographics, Zoller says.

The plan is to offer a par-three, nine-hole course, which will require less skill and less time, both barriers to getting in the game.

They’ll hold family days, clinics for kids, special programs for Cully neighborhood residents, and put used and donated golf clubs in the hands of people who need them.

The parks bureau will bring kids from nearby Rigler and Scott schools to the site to introduce them to the sport, and continue working with youth nonprofits like First Tee and the EAGLE program.

“Like skiing, unless you have those resources when you’re young, you don’t have the opportunity” to get into golf, Zoller says. “We would get people started and assist them in getting them as far as we can get them. ... We’re going to try all kinds of things.”

The goal, Zoller says, is to make the city’s golf program solvent and self-reliant, which Portland Parks & Recreation can’t do without reaching out to new players.

In the 1980s there were 13 18-hole public courses in the Portland area, and that had doubled by the late 1990s. But golfers have been aging out, and the courses were left empty.

About nine years ago, the city was forced to drop its 25-cent surcharge for nonresidents on each nine-round game of golf. Since 1994, the surcharge had gone to support the at-risk youth programs in the city, at one point generating about $150,000 per year.

If and when the golf program generates more revenue in the next several years, Zoller says, he’d like to bring that surcharge back.

The city paid $5 million in March to acquire the 48-acre southern parcel of Colwood from the The Trust for Public Lands. The northern parcel was rezoned for commercial and industrial use and the middle parcel will be maintained by the parks bureau as a natural area.

Colwood had been an 18-hole golf course, but will undergo seeding and irrigation improvements by fall so that it can reopen next spring as a reconfigured course with new tees and greens.

All this is happening before a master plan for Colwood is implemented. Eileen Argentina, the parks bureau’s service manager, says that’s about five to seven years out, based on the city’s investments in other priorities for East Portland parks.

‘Skin in the game’ necessary?

Vicki Nakashima believes strongly that golf is a pastime that kids and people from all backgrounds can grow to love.

The historically exclusionary sport has become less of an old boys’ club, she says, and she only wishes she’d discovered it earlier in life.

The 66-year-old took up the sport with $5 lessons at Colwood when she retired from her state job 10 years ago. “It was a group of 11 women, very diverse,” she says.

Now Nakashima plays golf about three times a week, and does work in minority outreach as a volunteer for the Oregon Golf Association and Western States Golf Association and she is chairwoman of the 10-person Portland Golf Advisory Committee, the volunteer group that advises the city on everything from finance and management to marketing and strategic direction for the city’s golf program.

Under the direction of parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the committee appointed five new members last year to fill retirements. One of those retired members voiced concerns that the city’s golf program is run by several people who live not in Portland or Oregon, but Washington state.

“All of us were kind of Portland people,” says Lee Hill, the retiree, who had served 27 years on the committee “To be a city commissioner or mayor of Portland, you have to be a resident of the city.”

Last year, Hill wrote a letter with this complaint to Argentina, citing his feeling that golf advisory members should have “skin in the game.”

Argentina says she looked hard at the residency issue but decided that it isn’t a detriment at all — in fact it could be an asset.

The golf program “draws from customers across the entire metro area,” she says. “We don’t have a problem with diversity in terms of people on the committee being from outside specific city limits of Portland.”

When appointing new members last year, she says, “we wanted to have representation from all parts of the city, but didn’t see it as a disqualifying factor if they didn’t live in the city.”

Zoller, the golf program manager, is one of the out-of-state residents, living in Camas, Wash. Nakashima, the committee’s chairwoman, also lives in Camas.

Nakashima is a volunteer marshal (host) and starter (helper) at the Camas Meadows Golf Club, a privately run golf club across the river.

Of her own residency, Nakashima says she has lived in Oregon most of her life, and knows the Portland community.” It’s a region,” she says. “(The golf program’s) clientele comes from way beyond Portland.”

Other committee members include Yvonne Deckard, the former city human resources director and Portland Public Schools consultant, who is African-American; Kristen Dozono, daughter of former mayoral candidate and businessman Sho Dozono, who works as a Portland real estate agent; Bill McAllister, former attorney; Bill Brooks, a businessman; Shanda Imlay, a golf coach at Cleveland High School; Lissa Guyton, an African-American business owner; Bill Hart, an African-American architect; and Vincent DiGiano, a young member of the Eastmoreland Golf Club.

The 10th member who soon may be appointed is a student at Wilson High School.

The current committee is the youngest and most diverse in the program’s history.

Nakashima says that representation is critical: “If we’re serious about changing the demographics in this country and city of Portland,” she says, “we need to recognize that the businesses and the community we serve — whether we’re a golf course or a convenience store — reflect the people who’ll benefit from what we do.”