On Wednesday, November 16, the Cobbs Creek Foundation held a town hall meeting at the Overbrook Educational Center, the first time that foundation representatives and elected officials faced the public in person to answer questions about the controversial golf course renovation, in which over 100 acres of trees have been cleared by the West Conshohocken-based foundation controlled by the billionaire Maguire family after the City signed a 70-year (including extensions) lease for $1 with the foundation at the end of 2021.
The town hall kicked off with statements from elected officials: City Council member Curtis Jones, state senator Vincent Hughes and state representative Morgan Cephas made statements in favor of the foundation’s redevelopment of the golf course. They described the golf course as a longtime neighborhood problem that the City didn’t have the resources to maintain or renovate after decades of neglect. They see it as now having potential as a neighborhood asset with the foundation’s intervention. All three referred to benefits to local youth who would be exposed to “nontraditional sports.”
Foundation chief operations officer Enrique Hervada and president Jeff Shanahan then talked about the history of the golf course and the plans to build a driving range and education center, both recently having received the green light from the Philadelphia Art Commission. They said that they expect the full course to open in 2025.
Foundation outreach representatives Maria Stroup, Morgan Moore and Blane Stoddart then spoke about the educational programming funded by the foundation as well as contracting and employment opportunities for local residents.
Some local golfers spoke out in favor of the course, as did several parents and employees of local schools grateful for the educational programs funded by the foundation.
Critics of the golf course spoke up as well. Dee Dukes of the Wynnefield Community Neighborhood Association asked how the community could ensure that the foundation would provide the community and educational programming it says it will. Foundation representatives pointed to their obligations under the lease with the City.
Others questioned the extent of outreach conducted in the neighborhoods surrounding the course and asked for details about chemicals that would be applied to the golf course.
Paul Tornetta, owner of Tee’s Golf Center and Driving Range, asked about the design of the driving range. He pointed out that the foundation now plans to build a driving range larger than what they had described in the lease, and that the renderings shared by the foundation omitted lighting that he said would be strong enough to be seen by residents living at the edge of the course. He also questioned the characterization of the golf course as a nonprofit enterprise, saying it was a commercial operation.
Bethany Teigan asked about trees remaining on steep slopes that are slated to be cut down if the foundation wins a zoning variance from the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, required as a measure to avoid erosion near waterways. Shanahan confirmed the foundation’s intention to pursue the variance and cut down the trees.
Lawrence Szmulowicz, a volunteer with the Cobbs Creek Ambassadors and Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice, pointed out that the foundation had already violated terms of the lease, for example by proceeding with course development before obtaining required state permits, without any repercussions from the City, and he asked the foundation representatives if they would sign a community benefits agreement that would allow residents to sue the foundation up if it didn’t follow through on their commitments. Shanahan replied that the foundation could be trusted and his understanding was that community benefits agreements were ordinarily signed by for-profit corporations, not by nonprofit organizations like the foundation.
Katrina Clark also pointed out that the patriarch of the Maguire family said he was pulling scholarship funding from the University of Pennsylvania after athletes sat in protest during the national anthem at a football game. She asked how residents could be sure that he wouldn’t walk away from the golf course and echoed Szmulowicz’s demand for a community benefits agreement.