Chris Harris was never some middle-class guy aspiring to move next to a golf course.
Instead, 20 years ago, he dreamed of building his own — having it spread out alongside his East Side bungalow as an oasis, although not for him. He wanted a place for neighborhood kids to play, a green haven to combat the blight he saw hurting his Ivanhoe neighborhood.
This week, a big part of that dream came true.
Trucks hauling rolls of sod as large as hay bales pulled up Wednesday to what were once a succession of nine housing lots — all purchased over the years by Harris on Wayne Avenue — to place grass on what will soon open as the Harris Park Golf & Learning Center. It’s a pitch and putt course, complete with six tees, two holes and two sand traps, for any child or adult who wants to play there.
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“It’s not just about my dream,” Harris said. “It’s about the neighborhood’s dream.”
Harris, at age 49, is far from rich He’s not a philanthropist with a family foundation giving back to the neighborhood that he once called home. The neighborhood is still his home. Harris lives in the bungalow where he grew up and had what he called a good life.
He graduated from Westport High School and, as a stand-out basketball talent, helped Penn Valley Community College clinch the 1996 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II championship. He would go on to be an assistant coach in professional minor league basketball, working under former University of Kansas point guard Kevin Pritchard with Kansas City Knights and under former NBA player Scott Wedman with Montana’s Great Falls Explorers.
“He just has a great heart,” said Wedman, who now works in Kansas City real estate. “I think he’s like anybody, trying to better himself, but trying to bring other folks up with him. He just wants to help other people.”
Full time, Harris is employed at Truman Medical Center, working to locate homes for the homeless. But since the late 1990s, he has been driven by a vision to transform his neighborhood, which he’d seen fall into decay. He thought that sports and parks could transform kids.
Slowly, over the years, he began buying the empty lots and ruined houses on both sides of Wayne Avenue, often for only a few thousands dollars. Eventually, he would come to own the entire west side of the block, 19 lots, between 40th and 41st streets.
He raised money, upwards of $2.5 million, and in 1998 created the Harris Park Midtown Sports and Activity Center with a basketball court and expansive green space, followed by a volleyball court and playground.
“I just remember him going outside and tearing down the trees by himself,” said his 27-year-old daughter, Jasmin Harris. Inspired by her father’s example, she said, she became a children’s case manager and is getting her master’s degree in therapy “just to show kids a different side of things, give them different options, let them know that there’s more than what they’re used to.”
Golf definitely was not something that kids in the urban core were used to, with Swope Park’s golf courses seven miles away.
“It’s a golf desert,” he said.
Beyond buying the west side of Wayne Avenue, Harris also bought 17 lots on the east side, enough for a small pitch and putt course. The Star ran a story two years ago about Harris’ effort — working part-time at Mission Hills County Club to learn how to construct a course, hauling tons of sand onto his property.
The piece caught the attention of Kirk Flury, a Kansas City native and retired physician in St. Louis. He lived, for a short period, along Wayne Avenue as a child in the 1940s.
“My grandparents lived over there,” Flury said. “I had an aunt and uncle who lived in the same general area. My father went to Paseo High School. … I thought it was interesting that that’s where I was born and here it is 65, 70 years later, he’s building a golf course over there.”
Flury thought the project needed support. He called his brother, who played golf at Mission Hills Country Club. Others had also seen the story. Members got involved. Kansas Golf Hall of Fame member Frank Kirk lent his connections and fundraising expertise, establishing the activity center as a nonprofit. The Midwest Section PGA signed on, as did others, who donated or offered at a discount materials or expertise, including CE Golf Design, the architectural firm HOK, Trozzolo Communications, Van Wall Equipment., CBIZ and the Polsinelli law firm.
Kirk said the first phase of the course — which includes the construction of two greens, six tee boxes and two sand traps, along with drainage, retaining walls and a sprinkler system — cost about $195,000. They have so far raised $120,000 and continue to look for donations. Once the first phase is established, the plan is to demolish Harris’ boyhood home to make way for another two greens and several more tee boxes on the southeast side of Wayne Avenue at a cost of about $230,000, which would need to be raised.
When the course officially opens, it will become part of First Tee of Kansas City, a development organization geared to teaching children golf alongside the group’s core values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship and confidence.
Although the sod has been placed, Harris said the root system will still need to establish itself. He doesn’t anticipate having any lessons or tournaments perhaps until the spring, although an unveiling ceremony could possibly be held this fall, depending on the grass.
At times the course will charge fees, but it will also offer some free admission.
Harris hopes that what he’s created at 40th and Wayne might be a model for other cities.
“When you really look at it,” he said, “the cost of bringing golf to the inner city, it is a no brainer. You have a lot of aspects of opening a lot of doors with the game of golf. You have plenty of green space in the urban area.
“Football is accessible. Basketball is accessible. Volleyball is accessible. Golf is not accessible to kids in the inner city. So, now, you can just get up in the morning, put your shoes on, and play golf.”
A 5 kilometer walk and run Sept. 15 at Harris Park Midtown Sports and Activity Center, 41st Street and Wayne Avenue, will raise money to support the new golf course. Participants will see how the once-blighted Ivanhoe neighborhood is finding new life. Registration and warm-up start at 7 a.m.; the race starts at 8. Registration: $25 for adults; free for children 12 and under. See harrissportskc.org/events.