On its merits alone, Dave Heller's proposed mini-golf course should easily win approval.
What's left to be seen is just how many members of Davenport's Riverfront Improvement Commission can't move past old personal biases when the proposal for a 20,000-square-foot course in LeClaire Park comes before them for a vote.
One needn't buy the Quad-Cities River Bandits owner's exceedingly romantic rhetoric for why he wants to pour at least $600,000 into a mud pit behind Modern Woodmen Park in order to support his plan. Heller — and co-owner Roby Smith — contend it's all about loving their community and their children.
Brass tacks: Theirs is a business decision, and that's OK.
Baseball's plodding pace just isn't doing it for today's millennials, who are now starting families. That's a potentially devastating threat to the game itself. Baseball's power is in its ability to bind generations. That all ends when one generation stops taking the next to the ballgame.
Over the short term, Heller is looking to give families reasons to patronize the park throughout the year, he said recently while meeting with the editorial board. In the long term, Heller hopes those customers subconsciously equate baseball with good ol' family fun and start buying tickets.
Heller — with all his rides and carnival atmosphere — is taking out insurance against baseball's biggest weakness.
Even Heller's most ardent skeptics on the commission acknowledged last week that, overall, his proposal has merit. The piece of property Heller hopes to annex into the ballpark is, by all rights, a neglected eyesore. Its dimensions and location – hemmed in by the bike path, band shell and stadium — drastically limit potential uses.
Cash and a desire to assert the embattled commission's authority are the rubs here. Several commission members — holdovers from the former iteration, the Levee Improvement Commission — disagreed with Heller's call to permit him to annex the property, essentially free of charge, into the ballpark, which he leases from the city. Instead, they argued, Heller should be required to sign a separate lease for the parcel and be charged for the privilege. Such a move would solve a lot of the commission's financial troubles, they argued. Most of the leases that once funded Davenport's riverfront died as industry left the riverfront. A Kraft Heinz lease is slated to end soon, too.
The commission faces a financial crisis. In Heller, some members see a cash cow in need of milking. But Heller didn't equivocate. Any attempt to bleed him will scuttle the project. In this instance, Heller has commissioners over the proverbial barrel. It's not as if there are competing uses for that patch of dirt Heller wants.
For years, some local officials and baseball purists have griped about Heller's increasing reliance on carnival rides to attract crowds. They have vented about the City Council's decision that allowed Heller to expand into LeClaire Park to build the Ferris wheel. They have quietly claimed that Heller is determined to consume LeClaire Park piece by piece.
In short, there's a bloc of Davenport officialdom that just doesn't trust Dave Heller.
But it's the facts of Heller's record — not rampant conspiracy theories — that should determine a commissioner's vote. Average annual paid attendance has jumped 63 percent at River Bandits games decade over decade since Heller took ownership, according to Quad-City Times records. He has poured substantial cash into charity and college scholarships. He has pledged to expand no further into LeClaire Park if he gets his piece of ground.
No, mini-golf won't remake Davenport's downtown. It wouldn't be a seminal shift in Quad-Cities entertainment. It wouldn't solve all the ills that plague downtown's westernmost expanse. But it would be an additional amenity, and it's amenities that the city needs.
The Riverfront Improvement Commission should approve Heller's proposal in the coming weeks and send the issue to City Council. Anything else would be an exercise in personal prejudice and self immolation.