Geoff Larcom: Rules changes ignite tailgating debate at Ann Arbor Golf & Outing Club
It’s almost as intense as the question of who will start at quarterback for the University of Michigan this season. It’s the great tailgate debate at The Ann Arbor Golf & Outing Club.
You might not know of the club, but you’ve seen it. It’s a nine-hole, private tract located on the corner of Stadium Boulevard and Main Street, notched neatly into the surrounding University of Michigan Golf Course.
The 118-year-old club is one of the oldest courses in Michigan and is located across the street from Michigan Stadium.
G&O, as members call it, has become one of the finest football tailgating territories in America. The hilly course makes for all sorts of excellent niches where you can set up a canopy and party all day, with the game but a minor intrusion.
The best place to party is a valley in the middle of the golf course, but dozens of groups have staked out other cool spots. For years, fans have arrived early in the morning and set up elaborate spreads that involve dozens of cars.
For those who indulge, it’s a big deal, which is why a new set of parking rules have irritated longtime tailgaters more than a warm beer or cold bratwurst.
Citing safety concerns, the club’s board of directors ruled that canopies must be no larger than 10 by 12 feet, and must be located to the front or rear of your vehicle, not to the side or in traffic lanes.
More important, group parking will no longer be guaranteed at a favorite spot. Instead, parking supervisors will direct vehicles to only one section at a time. A new section won’t be open until the previous one has been filled.
And to some, that’s a problem. Partiers who’ve occupied the same location for years no longer are assured their favorite spot.
The reaction to the decision this summer was swift and angry. Larry Eiler, a member of the board and parking supervisor for the club, received hundreds of e-mails on the issue. The comments flowed in, a river of vitriol.
The club says the changes will preserve routes for emergency vehicles and provide a safer parking environment.
Bah, said some fans; this is simply a way to cram in cars and make more money. And where is the loyalty to customers who year after year have made Golf & Outing their party place?
After the initial outcry, the G&O board again discussed the rules changes this summer, but reaffirmed the decision. “Safety must be the primary criterion for allowing guests to park on our course,” club president Jeff Carter said in a statement to members. Well, it’s hard to find two more stubborn groups than board members of a private club, or football fans who feel entitled to party in the same place year after year.
What’s needed here is some mutual understanding. A little tailgate empathy, if you will.
First of all, I’m confident Golf & Outing does not care about whatever extra revenue can be generated from these new rules. Depending on the game, the club makes about $50,000 to $60,000 per game in parking about 1,500 to 1,700 cars at $40 a pop each football Saturday, according to Eiler. The new rules will add no more than a couple hundred cars in a best-case scenario. “Cost is not a driver,” he says, and I believe him.
Second, safety is a legitimate issue. Have you walked around G&O recently during a big game? It’s a traffic mess. Last year’s Michigan State game was amazing - a world-class party scene but a disaster waiting to happen. Imagine the flap that would ensue if somebody died because nobody could get into help.
There might be a middle ground in this turf war, however. I agree with the suggestion of longtime Ann Arborite Rex Stanczak, who has tailgated with his buddies at G&O for nearly 20 years. They gather at a neat location in the rough along the seventh hole, near Main Street, next to a grove of pine trees.
Stanczak says he understands the club’s safety concerns, and will gladly set up his site as required. But why not let the big groups in early in the morning, say from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., an hour before the gates normally open? After that, you must park where they tell you.
“Let’s take care of the best customers you have,” Stanczak said last week., calling his solution a “win-win.”
Stanczak says his group will move to another location if it can’t have its longtime spot. He’s serious - even appearing on the radio to make his group’s case.
But with only a few more weeks until the season, it appears the G&O board will not back down.
I can only offer Stanczak and his friends one sliver of comfort. As it was for last year’s 3-9 Wolverines, there is always next season. The great tailgate debate will arise again.