By PATRICK STUTZ
Special to 77 Square
Mike Batka looked through the window of his retail store on Milwaukee Street to the lush field and steep hillside of Hiestand Park.
Batka does this every few hours to check the weather, monitor the park and to get a head count of the growing number of disc golfers waiting to tee off.
"There are times I've looked across the street and found upwards of two dozen people standing around," Batka said. "Madison has a nice disc golf scene, but it hasn't seen much growth in its resources, and we're reaching a point of critical mass."
Disc golf is drawing so many players to Madison courses, in fact, that resources to maintain them are being strained. Organizers are now faced with a question; should they start charging a greens fee for players to cover the cost?
Madison opened its first disc golf course at Elver Park 17 years ago this month as the result of a joint agreement between the Madison Parks and the Madison Area Disc Golf Club.
The arrangement made the club responsible for volunteer maintenance efforts that included trash collection, purchasing hardware and materials, and minor landscaping duties outside of mowing. But the sport has proven so popular, with waiting lines now reaching 30 minutes, that the club is looking for additional help from the city to keep the activity moving along.
Batka, the club's current president and co-owner of the disc golf retail store Glide on Milwaukee Street, estimates Hiestand and Elver each average 500 disc golfers a day, and the long lines and increased erosion is creating an adverse effect on the area sport.
"There is a lot of effort that goes into keeping the courses nice, but with the amount of traffic we are now seeing, we need additional recourses," Batka said. "We just want the city to take more ownership in its courses."
Earlier this year, the club presented Madison Parks with a proposal requiring a pay-per-play policy at both of the Madison courses, modeled after the successful program Dane County operates at Token Creek.
The county's Vallarta-Ast disc golf course has charged its players since it opened in 2002 and the fiscal result is a park that pays for itself.
Last year, Vallarta-Ast brought in approximately $48,000 in revenue, which covered the cost of course maintenance and registration enforcement, requiring almost no volunteer resources. The course, according to Batka, is also one of the most well-kept disc golf courses in Wisconsin.
Steven Doniger, community services manager with Madison Parks, said he can see the value in a pay-per-play system. But changing park policies isn't an easy call.
"You want a robust and diverse parks system, like we currently have in Madison, but we primarily have a no-fee system," Doniger said. "There is an obvious benefit to seeing a return on your investment, but there is a balance that needs to be found between charging fees and having access to our facilities."
Batka agreed charging a fee, even as small as $5, might turn away players, especially since he believes the sport's explosive growth is partially due to its low cost of entry. But regulating the flow of play, updating the courses and helping to reduce erosion is worth the risk.
Doniger said introducing a pay-per-play system would also require additional costs to enforce the policy, including building fencing to keep out those who won't pay.
That might not sit well with non-disc golfers who want access to a public park. Hiestand and Elver's courses also cater to hikers in the warm months and cross-country skiers during the winter, whereas Vallarta-Ast is strictly a disc golf course.
Dane County Parks Director Darren Marsh said Vallarta-Ast is only successful because of its pay-per-play system, and Dane County is planning a nine-hole expansion at Token Creek and an additional 18-hole disc golf course in the next three years on the south side of Madison at Capital Spring.
But Marsh warned, "you can't just take a Token Creek scenario and drop it on these other parks.
"We were only able to put Vallarta-Ast at Token Creek because we already had the resources and staff there. The disc golf course alone would not be able to cover the costs."
Doniger said Madison Parks will be examining the pay-per-play system this fall, but has not ruled out other solutions such as sponsorship to help alleviate costs.
"These are things that require a park commission review, and a look at our policies and procedures," Doniger said. "I think the current system works, and the disc golf club is no different than other volunteer groups that maintain the facilities surrounding their events and activities. But we have to be open-minded and take a big picture approach to ensure we are finding the best way to pursue the situation."