A push to privatize Augusta Municipal Golf Course turned a corner Thursday, with the city Recreation Department’s release of a new draft request for proposals from private firms or anyone who might make it profitable.
Interim Course Manager Ed Howerton, who heads the skeleton city crew assigned to manage it as the commission rejected two other proposals this year, said Thursday the course has been kept playable through “a whole lot of (grass) cutting.” The course has averaged 35 daily rounds – a few more on weekends – and has 55 paying members, including loyalists “you can count on every day,” regardless of conditions.
The grass was short, though bare in many spots Thursday, but that was OK for Columbia County retiree Lou Scales, who said he plays “The Patch” when Jones Creek Golf Club in Evans is too crowded.
“It looks a little bit better than it did a week ago,” but the greens did not, Scales said. “It’s a municipal golf course, and that’s all right, but you can do better than this,” he said.
The vintage 1926 course, Augusta’s first to integrate, operated for decades under management by businessman Red Douglas, but hasn’t been the same since Douglas and his wife Ann left in the 1990s.
After several money-losing years under management by city staff, a push to hire an outside firm got underway five years ago, though it never had full commission support.
Three requests for proposals later, the city had a management company for a total of five months – the failed 2012 lease of the course to The Patch in Augusta LLC, which ended with rent and staff unpaid.
“The last time we got burned, because we made snap decisions,” said Commissioner Grady Smith. After terminating the lease to The Patch in Augusta, several commissioners attempted to lease the course to another firm, a trio of Augusta brothers, but that too fizzled and the course closed for a few days last year.
Another request for proposals generated interest from Virginia Beach Golf Management, which had support of several commissioners but not six, required to approve a measure. Then a new proposal from Augusta businessman Paul Simon to share resources between The Patch and adjacent First Tee also was rejected by the commission as a brand-new player, Grovetown entrepreneur Anthony Griffin, entered the picture.
Simon, the chairman emeritus of First Tee of Augusta, and Griffin said Thursday their proposals remained viable, though vastly different options they’ll both submit in response to the city’s latest – and fourth – RFP.
Griffin, a 30-year military man who has invented golf shoes that hold tees and clean clubs, says he and his partners intend to make $2 million in improvements at the course. The changes include adding a second floor to the clubhouse, a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, a fitness center, golf library and a nighttime Par 3 and driving range.
“We want to do it because it’s a great spot,” said Griffin, who wants a 15- to 20-year lease. The course is located in the heart of Augusta at Wrightsboro Road and Highland Avenue.
Simon says his proposal, which commissioners gave serious consideration earlier this year, remains the best option.
“We will send in our same proposal that we did before, which I think has more merit than any of them,” Simon said.
The plan was sidetracked because commissioners questioned its reliance on sales-tax dollars not yet approved by voters to make improvements. Simon said the commission would be in “full control” of how those dollars are spent, even after agreeing to the plan.
In the meantime, Augusta’s new recreation director, Bob Levine, has proposed reinvigorating the course by hiring appropriate staff and purchasing needed equipment. Levine said if the city is allowed to invest in the course, it will quit losing money in three years.
“We’re starting to turn it around already,” Levine said of ongoing overseeding, fertilizing and increased mowing.
Some commissioners think Levine might be a little too fond of keeping The Patch in-house.
“If we’re going to be stewards for the taxpayers, from past experience we didn’t do so good with it in-house,” said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. “When it was in our hands, it went south quick.”