Growing up in Whitesboro, NY, Bob Cantwell played and enjoyed many sports, settled into golf and skiing as his favorites, and competed in both as a high school and college athlete.
“Golf and skiing are individual sports,” Bob said, “but they also have a team element, and I really enjoy contributing to a winning team.”
Perhaps equaling his zeal for sports was his interest in being creative. “I was always looking to create something,” he recalls. “For example, I liked to devise sports-oriented games for my friends and me to play, and I think I made a few models of golf holes, too.”
As Bob was considering what to pursue beyond high school, he struck upon the idea that golf course architecture would allow him to combine his passions. “I saw it as a way to create from the land something people could enjoy as much as I did,” he said.
Since golf course architecture was not recognized as an educational field of study, landscape architecture was the vehicle that combined land planning design, site engineering, and environmental studies as a basis to pursue his field of interest.
With this vision in mind, he enrolled in 1972 at the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry at Syracuse University. Prior to enrollment, following the encouragement of his dad, he talked with SU golf coach Jim Boeheim – yes, Boeheim was an assistant basketball coach and head golf coach – about playing golf on the SU team. It turns out that he didn’t get the chance, as Syracuse dropped the sport the next spring. However, Bob did compete on the Orange ski team.
Bob graduated from Syracuse in the spring of 1976 and was married to his high school sweetheart, Patrice, one week later. They celebrated their 44th anniversary this year.
During college, he’d been working summers at Yahnundasis Golf Club in New Hartford, NY, where his appreciation for the design and maintenance of golf courses had continued to deepen. Unfortunately, employment opportunities in the Utica area were far from robust in 1976. Given this, his passion for pursuing a career in golf course architecture drove him to send employment inquiries to all golf course architects east of the Mississippi. He received no promising responses as “times were tough,” he said.
Following a lead from his brother-in-law, he took a position with an engineering firm in Vienna, VA, and for the next ten years worked as a site planner for several companies in Northern Virginia, from very small to very large firms. His diverse experience combining site engineering and land planning in multiple markets would serve him well for the remainder of his career.
Bob joked that he “cut his teeth” designing site plans for dozens of 7-Elevens in the suburbs around Washington, DC. “It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t golf course architecture,” he said, “but I learned a lot about the importance of repeat business and clients that paid their bills.”
Then came a Sunday morning that changed the course of the Cantwells’ lives. Bob and Patrice took their two- and four-year old sons on an hour’s drive to a Maryland State Park, only to find that, at 11 am, the park had reached its capacity and no more visitors were allowed.
“We’d both been frustrated with the traffic and commute times around the D.C. area,” Bob said, “but that trip to the park was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I called my dad for advice, and he suggested I look into the Rochester area to relocate. I’d actually never been in Rochester before. And while the motto for Virginia is ‘Virginia is for Lovers,’ ‘I Love NY’ was what we wanted at the time.”
With no internet websites to check, Bob found addresses in phone books and began sending letters to Rochester-based engineering firms. As it turned out, Sear-Brown Associates was looking for a site engineer. And the man in charge of the Site Engineering Department was Bruce Boncke. After an in-person interview with Bruce, Bob accepted a position with Sear-Brown in 1986. “As I recall it,” Bob said, “it was about 30% less money than I’d been making, but with a path to a better future. I think they call it ‘temporary inconvenience for permanent improvement.’”
Bob asked Bruce where he might look for a house. Bruce told him if he found a place on the east side he’d have the sun behind him driving to work and again driving home. “That was good enough for me,” Bob said, “and we found a home on Frank Street on the north side of Fairport. We’ve been in the Village ever since, for the last 32 years on Fifth Avenue.”
Bob was at Sear-Brown just two years when that path to the future suddenly became clear. Bruce, Doug Eldred and Jim Mueller all left Sear-Brown and started BME Associates in Fairport. Along with them came six other Sear-Brown employees – including Bob Cantwell and current BME president Peter Vars.
“Bob and I are the last two of the original nine that started BME in 1988. I will miss his passion for what we do, a passion that found its way into every design he prepared and for every client for whom he worked. We all wish Bob and Patrice a long and happy retirement.” Peter Vars
Thus, began the most rewarding years of Bob’s career. “It’s funny,” Bob said. “For ten years in Virginia, I was never with the same firm more than two consecutive years. I’m now in the home stretch of finishing 32 at BME.”
One thing was certain – the commute and traffic problems went away. “If I catch all three traffic lights on green, I can be from my house to the office in 58 seconds,” Bob said.
He proudly points to many factors that kept him at BME and made those decades so enjoyable. Near the top of that list “was the pleasure of working with clients of high integrity who were excellent business people.
“I also enjoyed clients who provided me the opportunity to feed my need to be creative and challenging us to find innovative solutions to meet their needs,” he said. “For instance, many of the projects we’ve completed for David Riedman have required a creative approach to zoning or land use to make them viable. Using ‘incentive zoning’ for the approval of the Residences at Canalside in Fairport is a good example.”
Another important factor in Bob’s tenure at BME has been the opportunity to be involved with the land planning and project management for projects in the residential market sector, which historically has represented half of the firm’s business.
“I’ve always viewed my involvement in residential projects as a chance to be part of fulfilling ‘The Great American Dream’ of home ownership,” he said. “And I always felt my true litmus test in designing these communities was to ask myself: ‘Would I live there?’”
Bob adds that “I’ve been fortunate to have had my fingers on most of BME’s residential projects,” and he estimates that through the years the firm has completed such projects for clients resulting in more than 7,000 homes, apartments and senior living units.
Perhaps the most significant factor in Bob’s decision to join BME was the opportunity for him to realize his dream of working on a golf course project. That initial project was Cobblestone Creek in Victor, NY, an upscale residential community of 280 homes and a championship golf course.
“At the time, this was the most exciting career opportunity for me,” he said, “because it represented a significant step to fulfill my career passion. I was extremely humbled to be the first person to set foot on the property with Bill Wilmot, who was the managing partner for the development’s owners. Bill involved me every step of the way as the project planner, including sitting in on interviews to select the golf course architect.”
Bob’s role in development of the Cobblestone community included collaboration with the golf course architect to design the community master plan, and working together with the BME staff of engineers and construction personnel throughout the design and construction phases.
“It was exciting for me to have Bill Wilmot value my professional input and involvement from day one,” Bob said. “For example, the golf course architect had originally shown the alignment of the 17th hole in an eastward orientation and through a very steep and wooded portion of the site. Bill asked me to review this routing, and I suggested a change in the orientation toward the south to provide an additional signature hole for the course with a 25-mile view to the Bristol Valley.
“Bill paused, then said: ‘You’re right!’ And that was that!”
Bob has also been involved with other BME golf course projects, including Greystone in Walworth, NY, Ravenwood in Victor, NY, and Hickory Stick in Lewiston, NY.
Through the years, Bob maintained a desire to continually learn more about his chosen vocation, and BME was just the place to do it. “Bruce was an important inspiration to me in my career,” he said. “He always encouraged us to consider innovative ideas and to ‘think outside the box.’ His counsel was: ‘If you come to me to complain about a problem, you’d better also come to offer a solution.’ That became the BME culture, and I really appreciated it. In fact, one outcome of our creative thinking was the concept and eventual codification of vertical clustering and incentive zoning (with the Rochester Home Builders) in New York State.”
Bob’s three decades at BME included countless appearances before municipal boards, both locally and regionally, and Bob said he has always appreciated the municipal staff and officials and the important role they play in the success of any project.
“Our firm’s culture always has been to work collaboratively,” he said. “The goal was to build positive working relationships to the benefit of our clients, the community, and the various industry associations, such as the Rochester Home Builders Association and the American Public Works Association.
Longevity in anyone’s career generally means one has worked with excellent colleagues, and Bob quickly acknowledges that idea. “I’ve been fortunate to work with talented and creative people who are loyal to BME and who maintain excellent relationships with clients. We’ve had very little turnover, and I looked forward each and every day to coming to the ‘office on the canal with the big smokestack’ and be part of a problem-solving team culture.”
When he’s no longer making that 58-second dash to the office or spending those hours in municipal meeting rooms, what’s next?
For one thing, he and Patrice likely will spend more time in one of their favorite places, the Adirondack Mountains. That will include some kayaking – “but in two kayaks, not one,” Bob said. And they’ll continue to enjoy working on their beautiful backyard gardens.
There will be more time, too, to spend with their three sons (Mitchell, Cormick and Connor,) two daughters-in-law (Mary Beth and Danielle), and two granddaughters (Clare and Caroline) who all live in the Greater Rochester area. And Bob will continue to appreciate his special relationship with his 96-year-old dad, Don, who lives with his wife, Bev, in Barneveld, NY. Don is a music educator and professional musician who continues to teach private lessons and perform musical gigs with his band, The Clef Dwellers.
Bob also will continue to serve on the Fairport Municipal Commission Board and on the Advisory Board for the Fairport-Perinton Partnership for a Better Community, and will continue to contribute in other ways to the strengthening of the “quality of life” in the Fairport community.
And, in a most fitting way to complete one rotation in his circle of life, retirement years may find Bob doing just what he did back in high school – golfing in the summer and skiing in the winter.