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City leaders want golf course to make par

Chattahoochee in debt, losing money despite renovation

POSTED: February 1, 2009 12:09 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Chattahoochee Country Club member Lory Schrage of Gainesville follows his shot during a round of golf Friday at the Chattahoochee Golf Course. Gainesville City Council members have been unable to come to a consensus over a fee agreement for members of the club to use the course.

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Gainesville City Council will hold a planning retreat this week, and officials say the profitability of the city’s municipal golf course will be on the agenda.

City Council members have been unable to come to a consensus over a corporate fee agreement for members of the Chattahoochee Country Club to use the Chattahoochee Golf Course. The main sticking point is concerns about the course’s ability to make money.

Twice a resolution has come before the council to seal a deal for a $275,000 agreement with the country club. Both times, it failed to make it beyond work session discussions.

Council members decided to take the contract to their retreat, set for Thursday and Friday at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center, to discuss the issue in-depth.

The golf course hasn’t made a profit since its major renovation in 2006. The city spent nearly $3 million renovating the 50-year-old course, which reopened January 2007 after a year of work.

The intent was to make the course more competitive and profitable, but city officials still are waiting to reap the rewards.

Golf Course Director Mark Bowen promised council members last year that returns would come in good time, but the course continues to suffer financially in a declining economy. Bowen was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment.

The issue over the course’s corporate contract came to a head Thursday at the City Council’s work session when Councilman Danny Dunagan asked to place the agreement on the consent agenda for Tuesday’s voting meeting.

The agreement calls for the Chattahoochee Country Club and other corporations to pay $23,750 a month for its members to play 9,500 rounds of golf annually.

Under the proposal, club members would be charged $17 for each round over 9,500 rounds. The current agreement charges $32 for each round over 10,000 rounds, but Dunagan said the new agreement will bring in an extra $15,000 annually.

"What they’re proposing is the same deal that they propose every year except a few less rounds, but $15,000 more, and they have opened up that members will not only go to play Chattahoochee but they will also get credit to play any other course," Dunagan said.

Gainesville Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe said the proposed agreement is essentially the same as the current agreement from a financial perspective, but that the new one makes room for revenue to be set aside for capital improvements.

City Manager Kip Padgett said the agreement, with the lower charge for extra rounds, will encourage members to play more rounds of golf after they have met their 9,500-round minimum.

"I think one of the thought processes on the 2009 agreement (is that) somebody would be encouraged to play more rounds ... but if you stay at $32 they may not want to play that many more rounds after they go over (the minimum)," Padgett said.

Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick was not so easily convinced that the new agreement is more profitable, and would not agree to a Tuesday vote on the contract.

Hamrick said the contract benefits members of the Chattahoochee Country Club, but does not consider "the average golfer."

"What I’m concerned about is that we’re giving a discount to that one-third," Hamrick said. "Hey, what about the two-thirds ... do we have any sort of way to compensate for that?

"What I’m looking out for is the average golfer."

Thursday, Hamrick seemed preoccupied with the declining profits of the golf course.

In the first six months of the fiscal year, the golf course reports a net loss of $128,000, he said.

"It’s a valuable course, and people say it’s one of the best municipal golf courses in the state," Hamrick said.

Both Hamrick and Dunagan agreed Thursday that the golf course has not recovered from the debt incurred to renovate it. That debt is making it hard for the city to earn profits, especially as recreation suffers in a slumping economy.

"We’ve got a $4 million debt on that golf course and we’re having to service that and that probably, looking back, was a mistake. But anyway, that’s neither here nor there it’s there," Dunagan said.

Dunagan blamed the course’s current woes on the economy.

"When the golf course was renovated, golf was big, it was going well," Dunagan said. "Golf is not doing so well now ...

"The state of golf, the whole industry, just like everything else, is in the hole right now, therein lies the whole problem."

But Hamrick said the problem could also lie in the way the golf course is managed.

"There needs to be some improvements in the operations out there," Hamrick said.

Padgett promised that the golf course operation would be a discussion at the council’s retreat.

And though Dunagan agreed to hold off on the discussion, he said delaying a decision was costing the city money.

"I’d like to look at it and talk some more about it, but I still think we’re losing money by this thing not being on the (consent agenda)," Dunagan said.



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