Hugo Chavez dismisses golf as a “bourgeois sport” incompatible with his vision of a socialist utopia. Chavez has some fellow travelers here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the city’s political class has targeted a small but popular golf course as an impediment to the region’s newest potential “crown jewel” – a taxpayer-subsidized botanical garden.
In 1938, a nine-hole public golf course opened in Charlottesville’s McIntire Park. The New Deal-era Works Progress Administration and a local businessmen’s club financed the $11,000 construction costs. The course uses compacted sand for its “greens,” eliminating the need for expensive irrigation and landscaping systems. Voluntary fees – $5 to play all day, paid on the honor system – more then cover the course’s maintenance. Indeed, the McIntire Golf Course is the only Charlottesville city park that is financially self-sustaining.
Given its low cost, the McIntire Golf Course is accessible to all elements of the community, including children, the elderly, and low-income families. Approximately 4,000 paid rounds are played at the course every year. The nonprofit First Tee Foundation also operates a highly successful educational program for children using the McIntire course. (For more on the course and its users, see this video prepared by the Save McIntire Golf Committee.)
But despite its popularity with the people of Charlottesville, the McIntire Golf Course has never been liked by the city’s all-Democratic political class. The problem is simple: The voluntary, self-supporting community that uses the golf course generates no political benefits for these self-appointed “civic leaders.” As far back as the 1970s, city planners slated the McIntire Golf Course for destruction; thankfully, the political class’s inability to formulate an acceptable “master plan” for McIntire Park has kept the course open and thriving for the past four decades.
Enter a new group called McIntire Botanical Garden. As the name implies, this nonprofit organization wants to construct a botanical garden – and the only location acceptable to MBG is the existing golf course. (Interestingly, a competing botanical nonprofit suggests there are at least two other acceptable sites.) MBG claims it is not in competition with the golfers, yet simultaneously insists there’s no way for a botanical garden and golf course to coexist within McIntire Park. One MBG member snidely told a local paper recently, “My idea of a botanical garden is inconsistent with people hitting golf balls . . . McIntire should be a botanical garden.”
Like most political rent-seekers, MBG is full of “vision” and empty on details. On August 28, MBG hosted a presentation by landscape designer Warren Byrd, where he primarily discussed botanical gardens in other cities and why it was a wonderful concept for Charlottesville. He steadfastly refused to offer any specifics about MBG. Byrd also denied any personal financial interest in the project, though later that day he told the Charlottesville Daily Progress that his firm would, in fact, be interested in winning the contract to design the hypothetical garden, which he estimated would cost up to $250,000.
MBG has already misled the public on the critical question of how to pay for the botanical garden. Initially, MBG president Helen Flamini said all of the necessary funds would be raised privately. But at a recent Charlottesville City Council meeting, Flamini reversed herself and said “public” funds would be necessary. Of course, since MBG doesn’t have a plan – or even a timetable for presenting a plan – there’s no way to know how much money will even be required. But that’s not terribly important at the moment since MBG has political allies, notably Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who will ovesee a new “master planning process” for McIntire Park later this year.
We all know this song-and-dance number: A nominally private group proposes a “partnership” with the local government to build a facility. The city leadership commits itself to the project without vetting the details carefully. When the private group suddenly realizes it can’t meet its fundraising goals, the city uses taxpayer dollars to bail out the project. The private group gets its facility, the city leaders take credit for getting the project done, and the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.
Indeed, this already happened in another part of McIntire Park. Mayor Norris and the City Council previously approved a 40-year lease for a large portion of western McIntire Park to the Piedmont Family YMCA so it can construct a new facility on “public” land. The lease was approved without a financial plan from the YMCA – a violation of the city’s own “best practices” – and there’s no timetable for construction to begin, assuming the YMCA can even raise the funds.
MBG’s counterargument is that a botanical garden would serve the public far better than the existing golf course. Mayor Norris has latched onto this point, telling one golf course supporter recently that “only a tiny number of residents ever enjoyed [McIntire] park because so much of it was reserved for golfing.” This is the constant refrain from MBG supporters: A small cadre of golfers are actively preventing the larger community from enjoying McIntire Park. Yet there’s no empirical evidence of this. There’s no grassroots uprising for a botanical garden, nor have there been protests against the “elitist” golf course from anyone outside of MBG.
What MBG and Norris are really appealing to is upper-class resentment against low-cost recreation. Somehow, a valuable piece of “public” property has fallen into the hands of a community with no political organization, no patronage operation, and no desire to play the “master planning” game controlled by the likes of Dave Norris. This will not stand.
There are a couple ways to look at this situation if you’re a libertarian. You could throw up your hands and say, “The city should just sell McIntire Park outright to whoever offers the highest bid, the golfers or the garden,” or you could look at the McIntire Golf Course and say it’s already been privatized through homesteading. The city might have a deed for the underlying land – itself a gift from Paul McIntire – but it did not pay for the course’s construction, it’s not paying for the current upkeep, and given the 40-year record of city leaders opposing the course, the city has clearly abandoned any claims to the property. As Walter Block observed in his recent book on the privatization of “public” roads:
A modicum of entitlement is automatically captured by those who “mix their labor” with an unowned (or in this case, illegitimately or improperly owned–by the state) piece of property. Thus, all of those who have traveled on the street by that token alone thereby obtain a claim of ownership over it.
The golfers who pay for and use the McIntire Park course are its rightful owners, not Dave Norris and the members of the political class who want to build a monument to their own authority in the form of a botanical garden. It’s not a question of whether the golf course is a “better” use of the land then a botanical garden; it’s a matter or respecting a group that has taken the time and effort to “mix their labor” with the land.