A divided Augusta Commission will reconsider Monday and again Tuesday businessman Paul Simon’s proposal to merge Augusta Municipal Golf Course with the nearby youth golf program First Tee.
The proposal is for the city to relinquish management of the beleaguered, money-losing course to the Fore! Augusta Foundation, the nonprofit that runs First Tee, but also calls for the city to invest $2.25 million in special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds for renovations at the course.
In response to comments made by commissioners Corey Johnson and Marion Williams at a July 15 work session, Simon said he amended his proposal to give Fore! Augusta a shorter, five-year management option if the course becomes profitable within three years after the renovations are complete. The previous option was seven years plus an option for 10 more.
Other changes in the amended proposal Simon said involve the city’s split of profits with the management group. The prior contract showed a 50-50 split; the amended contract divides the first $100,000 evenly while the next $100,000 and up give the city a larger share.
The plan is a “win-win” for the city, First Tee as well as Paine College, whose team could use the course, Simon said. It would also benefit tourists seeking to play rounds in the world’s golf capital, he said.
Despite the changes, several Augusta commissioners remain skeptical.
“I can’t support spending more of our taxpayers’ money into The Patch when we obviously need those funds directed to funding our safety and infrastructure needs,” said Commissioner Mary Davis.
Simon’s proposal is one of the latest the city has considered since an initial attempt at outsourced management, to Scotsman Brian Hendry, fell apart, and a subsequent effort to lease a local firm failed after the city refused to fund improvements at the course. Then in January, the commission rejected another offer from Virginia Beach Golf Management, which would have provided an immediate source of revenue to the city.
“We had the best opportunity back in January,” said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. “Until we find something close to that, I’m not supporting anything else.”
Guilfoyle said the city ought to put management or even sale of the course out for bids.
Other commissioners, including Bill Lockett, maintain support for Simon’s proposal.
“Mr. Simon is talking about pretty much the same thing that James Kendrick and I were working on in 2010,” said Lockett, who chaired a subcommittee seeking solutions for the course that year.
“We’ve got the First Tee, with all the young people. We’ve got the municipal golf course; they’re right next to each other. We can make money not only during the Masters; we can make money year-round,” he said.
Lockett said the city should not sell the course or lease it to a private firm because it’s a recreational service the city owes its residents.
“The taxpayers are paying for Newman (Tennis Center); the taxpayers are paying for the Aquatic Center,” he said.
Commissioner Marion Williams said he also supports Simon’s plan but hopes the city can recoup more than half the profits and not become locked into a long-term contract.
“They know how to make money,” Williams said of Simon, the former president of Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle. “I’m not interested in another (deal) right now. If we don’t do this, we need to do it ourselves.”
Since last year’s efforts to outsource management fell through, the course is under city management, with projected losses.
City Administrator Fred Russell said the matter comes down to the commission’s priorities.
“Once again, the question is what do you really want to have? Cheap golf, or turn it into something that makes money?” he asked. “How much do you want to put into it to make it work?”
Russell was not surprised that another proposal recently surfaced. Grovetown entrepreneur Anthony Griffin, an evangelist who invented a golf shoe that holds tees and ball markers, is presenting his proposal to run the course at the start of Tuesday’s commission meeting. Griffin’s proposal also calls for $2 million in city money to improve the course.