Pittsburgh Innovation District brings mini golf to Oakland

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Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

The Oakland Open, a mini golf course installed by the Pittsburgh Innovation District on Oakland Avenue, is intended to generate business for local eateries and restaurants.

By Anna Ligorio, Senior Staff Writer

Once a bustling street flowing with heavy traffic, Oakland Avenue is now filled with tables, pedestrians and something brand new to the neighborhood — mini golf. 

Located on the intersection of Forbes and Oakland avenues, the mini golf course, called the Oakland Open, sits in between an assortment of local businesses such as Fuku Tea, Stack’d and Fuel and Fuddle.

The course is Pittsburgh-themed, with one hole decorated with a miniature rendition of the Cathedral of Learning and another adorned with a yellow bridge. Pittsburgh Innovation District installed the course, and the organization seeks to enhance Oakland and surrounding neighborhoods, according to Mike Madden, its director and a 2014 Pitt alum.

“Pittsburgh Innovation District and Innovate PGH are public-private partnerships that look to add strategy and direction and enhance the critical mass of academic research investment and talents in Oakland and beyond,” Madden said.

The mini golf is free to play, but contributions to local businesses or donations are accepted. Participants currently need to create a reservation using Yelp, as walk-ups are suspended as of Thursday evening. According to Madden, the pop-up is intended to generate business for local eateries and restaurants. 

“The restaurants are part of the reason we’re doing this,” Madden said. “We want to keep Oakland a vibrant and sustainable neighborhood throughout the pandemic, and the restaurants have been great about it.”

According to its website, mini golf participants receive a coupon for $5 off of a purchase of $20 or more at select local restaurants. Some of the 12 participating restaurants include Fuel & Fuddle, Mario’s, Stack’d, Fuku Tea and Pamela’s

For some Oakland restaurant owners, this pop-up has brought in extra business. According to Brandon Smith, owner of Fuel & Fuddle, the mini-golf has been successful in bringing in new customers. 

“I think it’s brought a lot of people in, especially families on the weekends,” Smith said. “I think that it’s introducing them to our restaurant and our outdoor seating, so I think it’s been a really positive experience so far.”

Smith also said the coupons have been successful in bringing people in and are a good indicator of how well the program is working. 

“We have a couple dozen of these coupons that people have turned in, so we know that they played golf,” Smith said. “I’ve been talking to customers, and most have said that they saw the golf on the news so they came down here, and that’s what it’s all about.”

For students, mini golf can provide an opportunity to participate safely in a new activity. Kelly Schanes, a senior studying communications and public and professional writing, said she thinks mini golf is a great concept. 

“I always see people there, and I think it’s something fun to do if you just have a few hours to spare,” Schanes said. 

According to Schanes, who played a round mini golf with her boyfriend on March 12, playing the course was fun and competitive. 

“It was really fun,” Schanes said. “My boyfriend and I played our game, and we’re very competitive, so when we ended up tying so we had to do a tiebreaker — I lost by one, so I need to do a rematch.”

According to Madden, Pittsburgh Innovation District chose mini golf specifically because it wanted to implement something that would be safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but would also give people from outside Oakland a reason to visit.

“We knew that Oakland Avenue was closed to cars and traffic, and we wanted to take advantage of that,” Madden said. “We tried to think of something that was COVID-safe and also outdoors to give the whole region a reason to come into Oakland.” 

According to Smith, the closure of Oakland Avenue for pedestrian traffic and outdoor seating last summer saved his business from closing and has also created a great atmosphere. 

“If we hadn’t done that last year, we probably wouldn’t be here right now so I would say it has saved our business,” Smith said. “It’s got a good vibe, because it almost feels real life again, you know what I mean?”

Along with supporting local businesses during the pandemic, Madden said another reason for the mini golf pop-up is to promote the work of Pittsburgh Innovation District. 

“Another reason for this project is to create more brand awareness for what we’re doing,” Madden said. “We believe Pittsburgh’s economy will run through innovation, and obviously, what’s happening at Pitt and in Oakland and other universities is really important for the region.”

Madden said for him, the COVID-19 pandemic has extinguished spontaneous fun and urban pop-up experiences, so he wanted to bring something to Oakland that would put the neighborhood at the forefront of innovation and change.

“The pandemic has really squashed a lot of organic fun and, you know, sort of organic, urban pop-up projects like this,” Madden said. “So, with the mini golf, we wanted to kind of show that Oakland is at the forefront.” 

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