Repeatedly rejected by a divided Augusta Commission, a Virginia golf management company opted Wednesday to withdraw its bid to run Augusta Municipal Golf Course.
“After successfully negotiating a lease agreement with the evaluation team and having the motion to approve a lease agreement fail three times, we have decided to respectfully withdraw our offer,” Mike Fentress, the president of Virginia Beach Golf Management, wrote in an e-mail to interim Recreation Director Ron Houck.
Reached by phone, Fentress said his company needed to focus its energy on another golf course project rather than await the commission’s possible change of mind.
“The timing, we have all the different chemicals and things that need to go out at The Patch; prolonging that, we just had to decide, what’s the best way to go? It’s just a matter of timing,” he said. “We would have loved to have been able to do it.”
Virginia Beach Golf Management, whose principals are three PGA pros, including Fentress and Augusta native Andrew Menk, was the highest-ranked bidder to respond to a fall request for proposals to run the city-owned course, known to locals as “The Patch.”
The firm proposed to lease the course from Augusta for $250,000 in rent over 10 years, offer the public affordable rounds and implement a golf developmental program called Get Golf Ready to introduce new players to the game for which Augusta is known worldwide.
Augusta commissioners voted in 2009 to seek competitive bids from companies to run the course, which is expected to make a profit under city accounting rules but had failed, under city management, to do so for most of a decade.
Commissioners who supported leasing the course as a cost-saving measure that’s also good for Augusta golf expressed disappointment at the decision.
“It would have been a win-win for Augusta, Georgia, for the management group to get The Patch back in top condition, increase membership and be the golf course that Augustans deserve,” said Commissioner Mary Davis. “I am extremely disappointed that we as a commission could not work together to vote on the management contract.”
Commission votes Tuesday to approve and deny the lease both failed 5-4, with Commissioner Marion Williams abstaining each time to stop the mayor from casting a tie-breaking vote.
Leading the charge to deny the lease were commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett, who cited a tendency by the commission’s former, six-member white majority to “ramrod” approval of outsourcing city services, including the golf course and bus service, while excluding its four black members from the discussion.
“It’s no payback; it’s slow down,” Lockett said. “We asked them to slow down but they refused. The record we have of entering into agreements with vendors is not good.”
The development is at least the commission’s third stumble since voting to seek bids nearly four years ago. Its first attempt, a lease to The Patch in Augusta LLC, fell apart last year when the company abandoned its lease and left several employees unpaid. Fall negotiations with three Augusta brothers who offered to assume the lease also fell through after the commission declined to fund capital improvements at the course. Since then, a staff of three city recreation employees, including former course manager Ed Howerton have been in charge.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who voted in favor of the lease Tuesday, grimly suggested selling the course was the city’s only option.
“We will never entertain another management company to come in and take a look at this golf course, because of our past actions,” he said. “If you look at the countless hours this company spent, the money they spent to come down to these meetings and then to see the outcome of last night, it’s disturbing.”
Davis said budget constraints will determine the course’s future. With a lease in mind, the city did not include operational funds for The Patch in this year’s budget, although staff now working the course already are included in city payroll.
“That management group was our best opportunity at the time to get the course in the condition it needs to be in and the best for our membership,” she said. “We don’t know as far as our budget right now what we can do for The Patch.”