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Chicopee golf course upgrade in the works

County underwrites bonds for pricey improvements

POSTED: May 11, 2013 11:57 p.m.

Jim Arendt, golf director at Chicopee Woods Golf Course, works Saturday in the clubhouse. The course is planning to spend $2.2 million in capital improvements.

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Chicopee Woods Golf Course is about to spend $2.2 million in capital improvements even as the golf industry has seen declines in golfers and courses.

Hall County commissioners recently approved backing the bond debt and while projected future industry growth is slight, county officials are confident the golf course will continue to thrive.

The original 18-hole course was built in 1990 and nine more holes were built in 2000, said RK Whitehead, board chairman of the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission.

Whitehead asked commissioners late last month to back the refinancing of 1999 revenue bonds so it could save money by getting a more favorable interest rate. The park commission plans to refinance its current debt of about $1.5 million and add additional debt to equal $3.25 million.

“Let me state first and foremost, our request is not for any funding from the county, for either operation of or improvements to the golf course,” Whitehead said to commissioners April 25.

The park commission was established by the Georgia General Assembly in 1980 and modified in 1988 to oversee the gift of 1,800 acres from Johnson & Johnson off of Atlanta Highway.

The commission was created as a political division of the state and a public corporation, and is self-supporting. The 600-acre golf course is a division of the commission and accounts for all its revenue, Whitehead said. Part of that revenue goes toward park maintenance and helps Elachee Nature Science Center fund a park manager.

The unpaid Chicopee commission comprises 11 members: three commissioners appointed by Gainesville, four commissioners appointed by Hall County and two at-large members. Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan and Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum are nonvoting members. Terms are three years, except for the mayor and chairman, who hold the position for their term of office.

Attorney Treadwell Syfan, who advised the park commission and worked with Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock on the agreement, said the commission’s 1999 bonds weren’t rated by a credit rating agency. Both attorneys are with Stewart, Melvin & Frost law firm.

“It was a private placement with Sun Trust Bank,” Syfan said.

By having county and its Aa3 credit rating responsible for the debt if the commission can’t pay, the park commission can qualify for a historically lower interest rate.

Yet it’s a potential financial liability for the county. The intergovernmental agreement between the park commission and the county commission allows the county to assess a tax of up to 0.25 percent of a mill on the county’s tax digest if necessary to make the payments. One mill equals $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. The 2013 preliminary tax digest — the combined value of all taxable property in the county — is about $5.95 billion.

Everyone interviewed for this story said the chance the parks commission will default is nearly nonexistent. Blalock advised commissioners on signing the agreement. County Commissioner Scott Gibbs said he was convinced because of the Chicopee commission’s long track record of fiscal responsibility.

“It’s almost zilch,” Blalock said. “I don’t expect we’ll have to call on the (county) commissioners to pay the bonds.”

The most significant improvement the park commission wants to make is switching the greens from bent to Bermuda grass. Rodger Hogan, Professional Golfers’ Association of America director of golf with the Chattahoochee Golf Club in Gainesville, made the same suggestion to Gainesville City Council members at their retreat in January.

Hogan gave the council a presentation describing the advantages of Bermuda grass, including better heat tolerance, firmer grass blades and less need for fungicide.

Dunagan said the city may consider upgrading its greens in the future, but the city’s golf course grass is about 13 years old, while Chicopee’s is about twice that age.

“The city may do ours in the future,” Dunagan said. “When times get a little better, we may look at redoing ours if it will save us some money, and I think it will.”

Other improvements at Chicopee include repairing bunkers, replacing maintenance equipment and upgrading the irrigation system.

“The irrigation system’s been in the ground for 23 years,” Whitehead said. “So a lot of the piping in the ground, under the fairways delivering water to all the sprinkler heads and things, is aging, so we’re going to be replacing all of that.”

The Chicopee and Chattahoochee courses are competitors. Hogan said in his presentation that the city course could potentially lose 25 percent to 50 percent of “our play” from July to October to Chicopee because of the new greens.

“It’ll be the first public golf course in North Georgia with Bermuda greens,” Whitehead said. “It’s the right thing to do for the long-term viability of the golf course and viability of the park.”

A 2010 study from the National Golf Foundation said it expected to see a net decline of between 500 to 1,000 golf courses in the 10-year period ending in 2020. Golf participation began declining in 2000 and the research suggests 1 percent growth between 2010 and 2020.

“Local market conditions will have much more to do with individual course performance than the macroeconomics of the golf business,” the study stated.


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