Stephanie Bennett had wanted to open her own business for years, but she didn’t know what sort of business. And then she saw green — or rather, a lack of green.

“One day I was driving around Wildwood, and I realized there weren’t that many golf courses left there,” said Bennett, of Philadelphia. “And a light bulb just went off.”

After years of  miniature golf courses being sold off and torn down, the industry is on the rise again. New courses are being planned in shore towns such as the Wildwoods, as well as on the mainland.

A 70,000-square-foot course was approved recently for Northfield between Tilton Road and Northfield Avenue, with a projected opening date of mid-July. Two new courses are under construction in Wildwood. And Ocean City has seen several courses expand and even an indoor course open in the past several years.

“Golf is growing,” said Harris Miniature Golf Courses President Rich Lahey, of Wildwood. “There was a downturn when the economy went down, and entrepreneurs were pulling back, but it’s getting better.”

Lahey, whose company has built courses as far away as Australia, said miniature golf course owners can return investments of between $100,000 and $1 million within two to three years in a good location.

“Miniature golf course operators have actually done better in a bad economy,” Lahey said. “People are looking for less expensive recreation.”

Mark Benevento, of Somers Point, owns and operates several courses in Ocean City and Avalon. He was more circumspect about the business.

“I have a different business model,” Benevento said. “We build for ourselves, (and) the market we’re in is expensive. Ocean City Boardwalk real estate, Avalon real estate. ... Our goal is to make some money to pay the mortgage and have some cash flow, so in 30 years we own the ground free and clear.”

At Congo Falls, on the Boardwalk in Ocean City, “I’ve owned that for over 25 years, and every year I try to make it better. If I were to try to replace Congo Falls now, it would probably cost me $4 to $5 million.”

The cost of land is why many courses were bought and demolished during the real estate boom that preceded the economic downturn, he said.

“With the value of the real estate, it just made financial sense,” Benevento said. “The value of the properties was a lot more as condos.”

In the Wildwoods right now, Lahey said, “there’s probably eight or nine, down from a high of probably 20 right before the real estate boom. A lot of them were torn down to build big box stores or developments.”

Now, Lahey’s company is building one course near the George Redding Bridge into town and another, Bennett’s “Island Mini Golf,” on New Jersey Avenue. Both are expected to open in mid-July.

Off-island courses, with cheaper land, are a whole different model, Benevento said. In Northfield, the planned $250,000 course will be built by developer Siganos Management, of Northfield, on undeveloped land it already owns. Next door is an existing parking lot and its own frozen yogurt stand.

Sandra Poluski, Siganos property manager, saidlocals are an important target market for the course, which will be open from April to November.

“Miniature golf is a fun and exciting attraction for families to play together,” she said in a statement. “There are really not many other family oriented things to do in this area other than going down to the shore. It’ll be a great place for locals to get together for some fun, whether it be during the day, after work or on the weekends.”

Not all locals are happy, however. Daniel Loggi, former Atlantic County Superintendent of Schools, lives just up the road from the proposed course in Northfield. He spoke at a recent planning board meeting before it was approved.

“I’m just concerned because the traffic in that location is tremendous already,” Loggi said. “I just see a place that close to a school as being a problem. … I was surprised to hear about it, but I knew it would become a reality because that’s how things work. I just never thought there would be a miniature golf course right in the middle of a city like Northfield.”

Except for a few survivors, most attached to batting cages or campgrounds, most other mainland courses “are pretty well extinct,” said Milky Way Ice Cream and Miniature Golf owner Joe Luctasio.

His course, in the Villas section of Lower Township, “is one of the classic courses,” Luctasio said. “We’ve been here since 1965. … It has a hometown feel to it, and we mostly get family vacationers who rent year after year. We still get tourists coming through, but it’s mostly regular vacationers.”

Back at the shore, Duffer’s has been a Wildwood fixture since the 1960s, changing and evolving four or five times, owner Donald Long said.

“We used to be a putt-putt course,” Long said, “and now we have an undersea motif.”

Other, newer courses have taken the landscaped, themed ideas to the next level — literally, in the case of Benevento’s courses in Ocean City, where Congo Falls recently expanded to 54 holes on three levels, each with a different theme.

Benevento also opened Haunted Golf, an indoor course, last summer.

“That cost shy of a million dollars,” Benevento said of the animatronics-filled course where a talking skeleton banters with a buffalo head at the entrance to the wedding-crasher themed course.

“It’s totally unique,” he said. “We had the space, we owned the building there, and we had a huge warehouse in the back that was underutilized. So we came up with that concept.”

Golfer Elisabeth Walker, of Lancaster, Pa., said she really liked the variety of the newer courses, as did 10-year-old Cole Epting of Mohnton, Pa.

John Fiacco, of Sicklerville, as just looking for a bargain: “The main thing is to keep prices low, around $5, $6 or $7. Even $7 is a little too much,” he said.

Congo Falls costs just less than $6 for a round before 6 p.m., when it rises to almost $7. Jeff Krystopa, of Douglassville, Pa., played a round with his son Danny, 11.

“In cold weather, it’s a reason to get out,” Krystopa said. “Now it’s sunny and hot, but it’s shady and cool in here. It’s a perfect break from the Boardwalk.”

Still, some prefer the old ways. Back at Milky Way, Luctasio said, its old-school course is actually an attraction for “mini golf connoisseurs” nationwide.

“They seek us out,” Luctasio said. “At least once a year, an individual or group like that will come by — and they usually bring their own putters.”

Whether classic style or new, most course operators just loved what they do.

“There’s a lot of maintenance involved, but you can be creative,” Luctasio said. Families love it, kids love it. It’s a good deal.”

Added Benevento, “I know it’s corny. But I believe we’re selling memories.”

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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