John Updike wrote about the “peculiar bliss” of golf, of how players can be so caught up in the game that they neglect even their most basic needs. He attributes golf’s power to its “immensities of space, beside which even polo and baseball are constricted pastimes …”

The city’s Huron Hills Golf Course is 116 acres, and frames Huron Parkway just south of the river. Laid out in its earliest form in 1922, it’s dear to both some longtime golfers and its neighbors, for whose homes the course is a valued amenity.

But by the city’s calculations, Huron Hills has been losing money for years. Earlier this year the parks staff put out a request for proposals (RFP), inviting suggestions from anyone who had a better idea how to run the course. Two groups responded.

One, made up of neighbors, golfers, and park lovers, would turn the course over to a nonprofit to continue just as it is. The other, Miles of Golf, proposed to move that company’s driving range, golf academy, and pro shop to the flatter portion east of Huron Parkway, reducing the course to nine holes on the rolling hills to the west. The city’s choice could reshape one of its largest and most prominent parks.

Paul L. Bancel has been fighting for Huron Hills ever since the city started discussing whether to close a golf course, in 2004. Two years ago, the Ann Arbor News ran a photo of him at the seventh green, trying to convince city leaders and Ann Arborites that Huron Hills was worth saving.

Bancel helped found the Ann Arbor Golf Association. At the time, the group was hosting the “Three Hole Golf Outing,” where they invited the public to play or walk three holes at Huron Hills and enjoy grilled hot dogs and beverages. “Our intent was to get members of the Ann Arbor city government out to the course to see what they’d be giving up,” he recalls.

“I’m not a pro golfer, I’m just an average golfer,” says Bancel, a senior engineer in GM’s energy division. “What caught my attention was that the city was thinking of closing a golf course.”

Bancel’s seen closed golf courses in Florida, and the sight distresses him—”It’s like going to a zoo [with] no animals in the cages,” he says. But that’s not his main argument. “Parkland is parkland,” he says. “That’s where it starts. Parkland is the way to preserve open space within a city.

“The story I tell people is a friend of mine who is a professor at Eastern came here from North Carolina. I said to him, ‘Charlie, why did you move here, to this cold climate, from North Carolina?’ He said, ‘When I interviewed for the job at Eastern, they drove us around the area, and they drove us down this parkway in Ann Arbor that sort of went through this rolling open space and, like, there was this golf course right in the middle of the city!’

“Our basic premise is you shouldn’t close a golf course to turn it into a strip mall,” Bancel says. “You shouldn’t use parkland to make money for the city.”

Bancel uses the plural because he’s part of Ann Arbor Golf, the working title of the group that wants to continue Huron Hills in its current form. Some members are golfers like himself, but its core is made up of people who live nearby. “People say, ‘this is a [not-in-my-] backyard issue,'” Bancel says. “My response is, ‘Yeah, it is. If you live in that neighborhood, it is.’ Why not? That’s legit.”

The course isn’t quite in Ted Annis’s backyard, but it’s close—only the Racquet Club of Ann Arbor separates his sprawling home off Geddes from the course’s hilly back nine. “I’m not a NIMB, but a NOOP,” Annis says: Instead of “not in my backyard,” his message is “not on our parkland.” But he then confesses he is both: “If the driving range is lighted, yeah, I’ll see it. It reduces property values. That also should concern the city.”

Some neighbors fear that once money starts pouring in, the city and Miles of Golf will want more—that a driving range would not only bring glaring lights and ugly fences, but also in the winter, god forbid, an inflatable dome.

“There’s a bigger issue here,” Annis says, “which is highly concerning to me.” Granting a private company a concession at Huron Hills, he says, “sets an awful precedent for the rest of the parkland in the city. … Revenue is not the purpose of parkland.”

Huron Hills is in the city’s Second Ward. The ward’s councilmembers, Stephen Rapundalo and Tony Derezinksi, “are for this commercialization,” asserts Annis, clearly very upset. “They go out of their way to say it is not commercialization, and that causes me great disappointment.”

Asked about Huron Hills, Derezinski defers to Rapundalo. In addition to being the senior Second Ward councilmember, Rapundalo knows Huron Hills as a golfer, as chair of the city’s Golf Task Force, and as a member of the selection committee that will review the two proposals.

Bancel says that in a conversation, Rapundalo once dismissed the idea that Huron Hills could operate successfully as a nonprofit. “I don’t have any recollection of that coming up in that context,” Rapundalo responds. “Just for the record, I have no reason to discount or have any bias to a proposal that would be nonprofit based.”

In early November, Rapundalo had not yet looked at either proposal in detail, but he insists that nothing has been prejudged. “Either one–the devil is going to be in the details,” he says. “They would have to prove their fiscal and operational mettle just like anybody else, and convince us that they can do the job and execute it and meet the outcome that they’re proposing to deliver.”

Bancel and his allies propose to operate the course through a new entity called the Herb Fowler Foundation of Huron Hills (the name honors a beloved late golf course staffer). In their proposal, they say the foundation will “emulate the success of the [independently run] Leslie Science and Nature Center.” They note that they are “not asking the City to finance any capital improvements to the course. The Foundation will continue to operate the course in its current configuration. When the Foundation receives its federal tax-exempt status, it plans to raise money to supplement operations and begin an endowment for the course.”

As Bancel describes it, accepting the foundation’s proposal for Huron Hills sounds like a no-brainer: “It preserves it as open space; it preserves it as a historic legacy; it keeps it open for juniors and seniors, and it’s easy to do.”

Financially, he concedes, “We don’t bring in any money, but we save the city money. We save the city $250,000 a year. And the city loses $250,000 on the books now with Huron Hills.”

Miles of Golf founder Chris Mile meets me in his shop on Carpenter Road. “This is probably what it would be like at Huron Hills, in terms of size, what you see here,” he says. (Actually, it would be a little bigger—according to the proposal he currently has 9,000 square feet, while the new building would have 11,000.) “We sell shoes, golf bags, golf clubs, anything associated with golf.”

Mile says he and his partners had been “thinking about talking to the city for a long, long time, because we knew they were kind of struggling [at Huron Hills] … we always wondered what was going to happen to it.” At the city’s request, one of his partners, Doug Davis, joined the city’s Golf Task Force. “But in terms of really getting into it,” Mile says, “it’s been about a year.”

They don’t own their current location, and though they have a lease that runs through 2033, they and the property owner both have options to get out. “It’s been in the back of our minds that we were going to have to look for another spot,” Mile says.

He points out that Huron Hills has already been greatly altered over the years—some of the neighboring homes were built on what used to be the course, and Huron Parkway cut through it in the 1960s. And he disputes neighbors’ assumption that a driving range will necessarily be an eyesore. “Modern golf ranges look a little different than you used to see with the big fences,” he says. “The idea now is to make them look as much like a golf course as you can.”

Mile denies any interest in a dome–he says they’re rarely successful, and he’d be glad to rule it out in the city’s contract. As for lights, he says, “in the summer, here, we can play golf until ten o’clock. We do have a few lights that we don’t use all that much. It isn’t something that’s really essential to our business.”

The Carpenter range has netting to protect the apartments at the back of the property, “but there [at Huron Hills], there wouldn’t be any need for that,” Mile adds. “It’s just too big.” So big, in fact, that he’s suggested that Project Grow could repurpose the farther reaches for a community garden.

Mile says his proposal took the layout of the Carpenter range and “basically put the footprint on the first seven holes” at Huron Hills. “It fits very well—just taking this and moving it over there.” The area west of the parkway would continue to operate as a 9-hole golf course.

In November, the selection committee hadn’t even looked at the financial side of the proposals–Rapundalo says it will do so only if its review of the rest of the packages finds sufficient merit to move forward to interviewing the presenters. But with a golf shop, school, and driving range, plus the remaining traditional course, Miles of Golf surely would have a fatter cash flow than the Herb Fowler Foundation. Since the RFP specifies that proposals must show a financial benefit to the city, that would seem to give Mile a big edge.

But he and his partners also have a big liability: they’d probably need the city to finance their new building. That’s because the RFP limits the maximum length of any agreement to twenty years. At that point, the city could reclaim control of the property–along with the building.

“Because of the time frame they put on it, it would be pretty difficult—although we’re still trying to do it—to fund it privately,” Mile says. “What our proposal says is we would pay them back [for the investment], plus some additional money.”

Mile estimates the cost at $3.2 million. “If we were to move over there, we’d have to duplicate what you see here,” he says. “I think the building they have there now is 3,000 square feet, something like that, and the maintenance shed is another 2,000. So it would be bigger, but it’s not like there aren’t buildings there now. It would just be bigger and newer.”

City parks and recreation manager Colin Smith says a city council work session last December put Huron Hills back in play. “Huron—golf courses in general—have been an ongoing concern in terms of the fact that they are requiring subsidy from the general fund,” Smith explains. He summarizes council’s challenge to the parks staff like this: “Is there a way to provide golf at Huron which is more cost effective, that could provide a better experience for people?”

Smith calls Huron Hills a “sensitive” issue. It certainly is. Three years ago, neighbors outraged by a staff proposal to sell “the wooded property around the back nine” mobilized a write-in campaign that very nearly unseated Stephen Rapundalo. As a precaution, the RFP was vetted by both the Golf Task Force and the Parks Advisory Commission (PAC) before it went out. Both groups will comment on the responses as well, providing input to the selection committee.

Smith sits on the committee, along with his boss, community services administrator Sumedh Bahl, Leslie Park golf director Doug Kelly, PAC chair Julie Grand, Golf Task Force member Ed Walsh, Rapundalo, and former Ward 2 councilmember Mike Reid.

The two plans “are obviously very, very different proposals,” Smith says. But both, he notes, comply with the city’s baseline requirements: “There is a lot of concern over this,” he acknowledges. But “if you read the RFP, it says, in a number of places, that Huron [Hills] is to remain golf, it is to remain parkland—it is not being sold.”

Smith’s own feelings for Huron Hills run deep. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anybody who knows me that I’ve spent a lot of time at that course, and I’m very fond of it,” he says. “I learned how to play golf there.”

He first worked at the course as a high-schooler in 1989, and continued as a U-M student before going abroad to complete his undergrad and master’s degrees (his father, a retired U-M art history prof, is Scottish). Then, in 1998, he says, “I ended up having one of those moments—’I want to do what I love.'” Returning to the parks department, he “took a job teaching golf at Huron Hills for kids, making no money.” He eventually became a full-time supervisor there before being reassigned as part of an earlier cost-cutting drive.

When Paul Bancel explains why he cares so deeply about Huron Hills, he talks about its accessibility to young players and senior citizens. Smith, a golfer who got his start on the course and whose life direction ultimately changed as a result, seems like just the kind of player Bancel has in mind. But though Smith loves Huron Hills—and says he was “very close” to Herb Fowler—he doesn’t accept many of the foundation’s assumptions.

When asked how the foundation would reduce Huron Hills’ $250,000-a-year deficit, Bancel responds that a lot of the loss is depreciation—an accounting deduction that reflects the aging of the courses’ assets, but that doesn’t need to be paid in cash. In addition, he says, the city charges its golf courses for the cost of supporting their retirees—a $50,000 obligation that wouldn’t burden the Herb Fowler Foundation—as well as hefty administrative services and information technology fees.

But Smith says Bancel is wrong about the depreciation—all the depreciation charged against the city’s two golf courses is applied to the newer facilities at Leslie Park. Though the two courses operate as a single fund, “we obviously look to see how each course is doing individually,” Smith says, and Huron Hills’ assets are fully depreciated.

Smith agrees that the course’s profit-and-loss statement would look better without the municipal service and information technology charges. But even without them, he maintains, “Huron would still operate at a loss. I wish I could tell you otherwise.” And of course if Huron Hills stops paying the municipal service and IT charges, costs will increase for other departments.

Ditching the retiree costs is, from the city’s point of view, similarly problematic. Removing Huron Hills from the city’s reckoning won’t make that obligation go away—it would just shift the entire burden to Leslie Golf Course.

What about the neighbors’ argument that Miles of Golf would turn Huron Hills’ front holes into a strip mall? “We already have a maintenance building and a clubhouse there,” Smith responds, including a pro shop. While Miles of Golf’s store would be bigger, “I don’t think if you have read the proposals or read the RFP that you can for a minute think it’s going to be turned into a strip mall.”

Chris Mile doesn’t think the existing clubhouse is anything to brag about. “That’s the biggest eyesore in our minds,” he says, “the buildings and the way they’re situated now.” Even before moving his store, his proposal calls for putting “a lot more plantings around it, to sort of hide it.” Phase II would be the new building, which would be set back much farther from the road. In Phase III, they’d demolish the old clubhouse and build a new one across the parkway for the 9-hole course.

Paul Bancel questions the viability of a 9-hole course, especially on the back nine. “People play the front nine because it is easier to walk. Stats show half of the people play eighteen [holes], half play nine. But the half that play nine, play the front.”

What specifically makes Huron Hills’ back nine undesirable, Bancel says, is that it “is short, hilly, and it floods.” He predicts that if Mile’s proposal is accepted, the company won’t operate the golf course for long: “The hilly nine will be the mayor’s hiking ground in a couple years.”

According to Colin Smith, though, those statistics don’t match Huron Hills’ reality. “About eighty percent of the rounds at Huron are played as nine-hole rounds,” he says. “We don’t keep track of if they’re on the front or the back, but a lot of people come specifically to play the back. Certainly in my experience of working there, more people come with the intention or desire to play the back than the front.”

Chris Mile says that Huron Hills’ basic problem is that it “doesn’t have the [player] volume necessary to make it an 18-hole course.” He can see a 9-hole course being more successful, because it would cost less to maintain. And since his driving range, school, and shop operation is self-supporting on Carpenter, “we’re assuming it can support itself there. We don’t know what the golf course will do, but if this is as successful there as it is here, we figure we can take that chance and cover it.”

Miles of Golf’s plan would not, however, support the city’s retirees, or pay its administrative and IT fees. “If they make someone go over there and do exactly the same thing [the city is doing], it’s going to have the same result,” Mile says. “Nobody is going to really want to do that. Something has to change.”

“Ultimately, council is the decision-maker,” Smith says. But it’s a long and winding road from Huron Hills to City Hall. Smith explains that first, both proposals will be reviewed by the selection committee, which may invite one or both groups in for an interview to further explain their plans. (Rapundalo says he thinks that both groups are likely to make that cut.) The Golf Task Force and the Parks Advisory Commission will weigh in. Since the Miles of Golf proposal calls for construction, Smith notes, if it advances the planning commission would probably get involved, too.

The neighbors are prepared to fight the Miles of Golf proposal every step of the way. Organized as the Ann Arbor Parks Preservation Association, they’ve already hired an attorney, Susan Morrison. In November, Morrison sent city council a five-page letter asking that the Miles of Golf proposal be rejected, arguing that it violates both the city’s RFP and its zoning ordinance.

Colin Smith says that while he’s not qualified to address legal questions, the RFP was reviewed by the attorney’s office before it went out. As the Observer went to press, city attorney Stephen Postema had not responded to requests for comment on the neighbors’ letter.

To no one’s surprise, council did not act on the request to reject the Miles of Golf proposal. But Morrison’s letter appears intended less as a preemptive strike than to lay the groundwork for a future lawsuit. Ted Annis believes that the issue will end up in court, and says the neighbors are prepared for that if they lose at city council.

For his part, Chris Mile seems baffled by the effort to preserve what looks to him like a failing operation. “It’s just not sustainable as it is now,” he says. “It’s just not.” If the city rejects his proposal, he says, “there’s a potential that they’re going to have to keep paying for the neighbors around there to have this kind of little golf course that nobody’s using.”

Even a course with few players, though, has the magic John Updike wrote of, a dreamlike quality of time suspended. Unfortunately the golf dream is just that. “All my adult life I had been measured at six feet,” Updike writes. “No more, no less. My image of myself was that of a six-foot man who could hit a five-iron 150 yards. In all dimensions, I was shrinking.”

So might Huron Hills.