People in Park Heights have been waiting a long time to see the governor stop by for a morning of golf in their neighborhood.
Yesterday they got to see him -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. teeing off a few hundred yards from boarded-up rowhouses, a crumbling, vacant parking lot with knee-high weeds, overflowing dumpsters and ratty mattresses thrown in streets.
But he and just about everyone else there were talking about the changes planned for the 4700 block of Reisterstown Road, where local politicians and activists broke ground on the first phase of the Park Heights Community Golf Range and Family Sports Park, which will include tennis courts and a 30-tee golf driving range.
"All we need is a swimming pool and we'll have ourselves a country club right here," said David Owens, coach of the Head-Penn Urban All-Star Tennis Academy.
The idea seemed to go over well at the temporary tees, where local children in basketball shorts took turns swinging clubs with Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Mayor Martin O'Malley and several local golf pros, who shared some of their tips.
By fall, construction crews will also begin building a new playground and basketball courts as part of the $215,000 transformation.
"We're talking about revitalizing a neighborhood that has been ravaged by drugs, crime and just a whole mess of behavior not conducive to community living," said Oscar Cobbs, a neighborhood activist who has been involved with the project since its inception about six years ago.
Bev Thomas, a community activist who started the project with golf pro and lawyer Binx Watts, said one of the best aspects of the park is that the driving range will be run as a business by local youths who will be in charge of everything from buying the mulch to trimming the grass.
"We've had this vision, this dream," Thomas said. "Today, we're seeing it come off the page. It's touchable now, seeing all these kids."
Scores of young boys and girls, ranging from toddlers to teen-agers, picked up golf clubs -- some of them for the very first time.
Michael Taylor, 9, who lives nearby, had a positive first impression after a short lesson from Watts on how to grip the club and pivot when he swings. "It's good. This ball can go far," he said.
Tyrone Lawson Jr., 12, who lives in Woodlawn and plays basketball with a local team called the East Coast All-Stars, said he had seen a few golf tournaments on television but had never before played. "It's fun," he said. "In basketball, hitting a ball like this would be a technical foul."
"This is a good sport for kids," Watts said. "It's a game without a referee or umpire. It teaches honesty and sportsmanship. There's no one trying to block your shot. ... The players are respectful of each other. Your common enemy is the course, not each other. And it's a peaceful game. Right now, we're exposing the kids to golf, and then they'll have access to it."
In the second phase of construction, projected to cost an additional $2.3 million, a clubhouse will be built and several nearby properties will be bought to expand the green space known as Lucille Park.