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Fore in Frayser

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Going south for the winter seems to be as popular among retirees as it is among birds. And, with a little luck, hard work, and the city's help, golf pro Buddy McEwen wants to divert a few from Florida to Frayser. The retirees, that is; not the birds.

"I'm hoping the city fathers can see what can be done around the golf course," says McEwen, longtime pro at the beleaguered Davy Crockett golf course in Frayser.

"In Panama City, people moved down there so they could play golf," says McEwen. "Anyone from north of Kentucky would appreciate the climate here. They think 50 degrees is wonderful. It's twice that in the Panama City area, and they're playing $100 to play a round of golf."

It may seem an impossible dream for the almost-forgotten course once targeted for permanent closure but granted a reprieve by the City Council last October. It is now slated to be open at least until June.

Add in an AARP magazine article listing Memphis as one of the top 10 affordable places to retire, and McEwen sees a possibility to change Frayser's image.

Last week, McEwen, along with Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC) executive director Steve Lockwood and city government representatives, visited Atlanta's East Lake, a golf course/revitalization community that once was home to one of the nation's worst public-housing projects. Now the area includes a charter school and a mixed-income residential area nestled between the links.

McEwen has been involved in golf for over 50 years, starting as a caddy when he was 13. So he had heard about East Lake, once the home course of legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones.

"East Lake Country Club at that time was the fanciest place in Atlanta," he says. As with core city courses -- and other amenities -- in Memphis, Atlanta's golfers moved to the suburbs. In the 1970s, public housing was built on East Lake's second golf course, and the area was eventually deemed a war zone by local police.

Then, in 1995, a foundation was created to get East Lake out of the rough. Now the development is a national model. Five years ago, the average home there cost $40,000. Now that figure is at $200,000. The golf club is open again, and each corporate member is encouraged to donate $200,000 to the foundation.

In Atlanta, they had to tear down existing structures to build townhomes, duplexes, and garden apartments.

"We have literally thousands of acres of undeveloped property," says McEwen. "We're trying to convince a developer to develop that land into a community. Golf is a service to get people to move to the neighborhood."

Davy Crockett is arguably the most beautiful course in the area, with rolling hills and gorgeous vistas. But in a city where golf courses have been vastly overbuilt -- there are eight city-owned golf courses alone, including a new one in Whitehaven -- it has been largely abandoned.

"It is a very dramatic piece of land," says Lockwood. "Golfers love it, other than it is not well-maintained."

For any change to occur, especially if it's going to become a magnet for golf enthusiasts, it's going to take a makeover and a marketing effort. At least.

Though it is already considered the most difficult course in the city, Crockett is also the least played and the most expensive to maintain. To "make par," the course needs to do 30,000 rounds of golf a year. The city's parks division last year estimated it would do about 8,000 rounds.

At the time, I wondered if the city should continue to subsidize something that the nearby community wasn't supporting. But if someone can find a way to make it more valuable, I'm all for it. Just letting it sit there and slowly wither away is not doing anybody any good.

"This is a great asset that can draw investment into our community," says Lockwood. "But we need to reinvest in it to let it be that."

It's early yet, but does Frayser have the potential to become a golf community? Or even something else? With the proposed Nike warehouse within a mile of the golf course, both efforts could drive success in Frayser.

"We're really just starting to embark on this effort," says Lockwood. "We're trying to figure out how best to use the golf course and the acreage around it. ... We don't want to jump to the conclusion that we'll put housing all around there, but that is one of the options."

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