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Petaluma mini golf plans stay on course

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To inquire about displaying artwork at Free Range Miniature Golf or to learn more about the business, visit facebook.com/freerangeminigolf.

A Petaluma-centric miniature golf course and family fun center planned for the northeast corner of the city could open as soon as this summer, according to the local couple behind the project.

The Petaluma Planning Commission on Feb. 13 gave the green light to the 5101 Montero Way facility, which will include an 18-hole outdoor course with a nine-hole course inside an adjacent building with an arcade, a snack and ice cream bar, party rooms and a children’s area.

“We just love this town and we’re very excited about this idea,” said Kelly Valera, the creator of Free Range Miniature Golf.

The business has long been a dream for Kelly Valera, 40, and her 41-year-old husband, Jeff Valera. During her youth, Kelly Valera worked at a family fun center in western New York while Jeff Valera’s first job was a Chuck E. Cheese’s.

The first time Valera’s future husband visited her in New York, she took him on a date to the Charcoal Corral mini golf course, where her initial love for family entertainment facilities was hatched. After that visit, Jeff Valera told Kelly he’d like to open a miniature golf course.

About 12 years later, the couple is closer than ever to that reality. They’re awaiting building permits before work begins on the project, with hopes of opening at least part of the facility by June or July, Kelly Valera said.

The business will operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and will provide jobs for at least 10 part-time employees and eventually, a full-time manager. During the initial stages, the family will manage the course, Kelly Valera said. Currently, Kelly Valera publishes a neighborhood magazine and organizes an event that connects the community with volunteer opportunities at local nonprofits while her husband works with trade shows.

The facility will be the only business of its kind in Petaluma — the next closest mini golf course is Scandia in Rohnert Park — and the Valeras hope its location near the freeway will help draw in customers of all ages.

“We believe this project will support economic health and sustainability primarily by providing economic activities, like an entry-level job, as well as providing for supportive quality of life,” Petaluma’s Senior Planner Aaron Hollister told the commission. “Currently, there are not any similar recreational opportunies such as this. It’s something age appropriate for probably most ages.”

The inside of the course will focus heavily on local heritage and monuments, potentially including a small-scale D Street Bridge, a chicken coop or the miniature versions of the silver grain silos that shape the city’s skyline.

The Valeras plan to remodel the existing building, which once housed the Showcase of Motor Cars, to suit their needs. The business will have 35 parking spots, according to plans submitted to the city.

Though specifics for the 18-hole outdoor portion are forthcoming, Kelly Valera envisions a sculpture garden of sorts, tapping local artists for a display of artwork that would potentially be swapped out for new displays every six months.

“We want it to be very tasteful,” Kelly Valera said at the planning commission meeting. “I know this is one of the things you see when driving through Petaluma. It’s not going to look like a circus on the side of the road.”

To inquire about displaying artwork at Free Range Miniature Golf or to learn more about the business, visit facebook.com/freerangeminigolf.

That lack of finite details about the aesthetics of the course proved to be a deal breaker for Planning Vice Chairman Bill Wolpert, who was the sole dissenter in a 6-1 vote to approve the project plans. With their approval, commissioners laid out a regulatory framework for outdoor art and lighting.

“I want this to happen and I don’t want this to be onerous, but site plan and architectural review involves a review of colors and lighting and some idea of what it looks like. I just don’t know what it looks like,” Wolpert said.

Other commissioners expressed excitement about the prospect of such a facility in the city.

“I probably would approve a Scandia, even though we’re not going to get that,” Commissioner Heidi Bauer said, referring to the California-based chain of family fun centers. “It’s a good use for that site and Petaluma will benefit from a mini golf course.”

The Valeras, who have a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, leased the building on the more than one-acre parcel from Theresa Teuma, who was an adamant supporter of the project. She said the building has been vacant for five years, and she had 11 applicants for a lease, including cannabis dispensaries, breweries and another miniature golf course.

“Darn it, it’s a family center and we need this in Petaluma, we need it really bad,” she said. “We need it so the kids have a place to go and the teens aren’t out doing drugs … I really want to see this happen.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)