A small town with big ideas

Sean Dudley
By Chuck Ermisch

Isolated communities are struggling the world over. From Pacific islands to farming towns in the American midwest, young people are migrating to cities with larger populations and more economic opportunities. Reversing this process for any individual community is not easy. But one small town in Kansas has found an innovative way to do so, and I'm proud to have helped.

The city of Seneca, Kansas, is typical of many communities in the region, and probably elsewhere around the world.

The population, currently around 2,200, has declined in recent years, and many of the city's young people have left in search of educational and professional advancement. But the people of Seneca are determined to preserve and improve their community. Here is the story of how they are doing it.

Seneca had a nine hole golf course, built some years ago. The course was located on land that was more valuable than what it was producing financially, and many cities would have closed it down.

Instead, though, the authorities in Seneca authorised and created a community improvement masterplan that would see the land occupied by the golf course redeveloped as a mixture of residential property and leisure facilities, including an aquatic centre as well as various retail opportunities. A patch of adjacent land seemed more appropriate for golf, and the city undertook to donate it for development as an 18-hole course, as long as no public money was used to build the course.

I became involved in the Seneca project – now known as Spring Creek Golf Course – back in 2001. Over the course of the first three years, we developed a range of concepts, and got a land planner involved, enabling the creation of 55 housing lots on the property, aiming for the early retiree occupants to homes that are built as move up types taking advantage of golf course views. I met with the city authorities and golf board several times before starting the design work. I asked them: "What do you want from this golf course?" The answer came back: we want to create a leading course for the region, as there are no other 18 hole facilities within a 60 mile radius.

We want to be able to attract amateur tournaments, and corporate events, so we need something a little more upscale than the average municipal.

This made the project especially interesting, as I knew the budget was tight.

The course had to be just special enough, while still being able to be maintained at a low cost. Fortunately, the site was suited for this – it was quite wide open, and I was able to make use of native grasses and other features around the greens including bunkering, and to bring the native grasses in close to the greenside bunkers and mounding. Rather than just building circular turtle-backed greens out in the open, we were able to tuck the greens into natural topographical features around the property. For me, this was the best side of the project – we had a site that allowed the design to incorporate grassing lines, and tuck greens into areas of natural topography that made sense. That was the fun part of the project – we were able to do some neat things with minimal earthmoving, because we had a site with good natural soils and topography. We only moved an estimated 180,000 cubic yards in total, mainly for greens, tees and the building of a water storage system. To keep costs competitive, we hired a local contractor out of Kansas City, who did shaping, irrigation and construction of greens. A community-based volunteer group did drainage work and built bunkers. That sounds like a great idea, and it worked out well in the end, but it does take a lot of work to coordinate and schedule people who don't know much about building golf courses.

One of the interesting aspects of the project is that we have been able to design in areas that can be transitioned into more complex features if maintenance budgets allow it in the future. For example, we shaped in areas that could one day become more formal sand bunkers. And around the greens I've designed areas that could be transitioned into green surface easily if they want to expand greens in future.

What's really exciting about Spring Creek is the effect it's having on the community.

The course opened Memorial Day weekend in spring 2006, and already it's making a profit. They played 35 total shotgun tournaments in the first year of operations with two of them being 2 day events and they are expecting this number to maintain itself and increase in the next year. The city now has a high school competition, two women's leagues, a men's league, a junior club championship and a beginners clinic.

And the real estate is moving too – thirteen of the 55 housing lots have sold and six brand new houses have already been built.

So we are already helping the community to make itself more sustainable. That's really rewarding.