Buying 'Patch' is cheap ASU option

The 78-acre "Patch" property appeals to Augusta State University, which projects enrollment will increase by 7,000 over 20 years.

The Augusta Municipal Golf Course isn't for sale, but purchasing it "is an option" among several presented to Augusta State University master planners detailing how the university will double enrollment in 20 years.

The city-owned golf course has not recorded a profit, and in fact has posted an annual loss of more than $100,000 for several years.

Its distress recently attracted the attention of university officials, who are moving forward with plans to grow despite widely reported state cuts totaling 30 percent of ASU's operating budget.

The course, known to locals as "the Patch," is next to the university's only housing complex in an area south of existing ASU holdings soon to be known as its West Campus.

"It would be cheaper to purchase the Patch than to purchase the property around where we had originally planned to expand -- $2 million versus $30 million," Kathy Schofe, ASU's director of public relations, wrote in response to a reporter's questions.

The cost of acquiring 78 acres of privately held land next to ASU's West Campus needed to accommodate 7,000 more students -- the growth plan -- is even higher, at $35 million, said Kathy Hamrick, a former ASU math professor who is now a planner for the university.

No one on a subcommittee charged with recommending the fate of the Patch, nor any of its 150 members who have spoken out, want to sell the course, said Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett, the chairman of the subcommittee.

"We have lots of people that are on fixed income and love to play golf, and it's the government's responsibility to make sure certain things are provided to them," he said.

Lockett, whose district includes the Patch , said that though he'd be "ecstatic" if ASU decided to expand into the area, the course's losses are not unusual.

"You don't really expect those things to make a profit; if they can break even, it's great," he said.

An informal poll of six publicly owned and operated golf courses in the Southeast showed just one -- Charleston, S.C., Municipal Golf Course -- making a profit last year, according to Augusta Parks and Recreation Director Tom Beck.

Ultimately, the course's fate will be decided by the Augusta Commission, and Commissioner Don Grantham said he will make his vote count. Though the Patch is a public course, Grantham believes its losses show it doesn't cater to the public.

"We're not serving the general public; we're serving a few," he said. "Do you continue to deteriorate while you're serving a few? I think not."

Board of Regents-owned Forest Hills, meanwhile, has been solvent enough to make a $4 million contribution to the Augusta State golf program and facilities and make $1.6 million in improvements to the course, he said.

Grantham, an avid golfer and chairman of the board that operates Forest Hills, said he's stayed out of Patch discussions to avoid a conflict of interest.

Hypothesizing about ASU purchasing the Patch, Hamrick has said its members would be granted automatic membership at Forest Hills.

"It's a win-win for everybody when you look at the total picture," Grantham said.

ASU, which already has approval to build a new $28 million nursing and education building, must finalize a master plan for growth before planners select a site for the building, Hamrick said.

That plan must include at least three options for acquiring land for facilities, and ASU has cataloged everything available within a half-mile of its West Campus, she said.

The university's Walton Way campus, to be known as its East Campus, is at capacity with current enrollment of 7,000, and the school offers just one housing option: the 167-apartment complex on Damascus Road.

"That's our housing," and it's full, Hamrick said.

Nearby on Damascus Road is First Tee, a community golf center for youth; Augusta's Aquatic Center; about 35 acres owned by a private developer; and the Patch.

Hamrick said that until the subcommittee met ASU didn't have the Patch on its radar.

"They talked about how to save the Patch and the financial difficulties they were in," she said. "Only then did we start looking at the Patch as part of our master plan."

ASU is examining the Patch for an academic building. It's also considered putting the building on an existing athletic field and moving the field elsewhere, she said.

Building on Forest Hills Golf Course is not an option, she said.

"We'll do that when UGA puts a building right in the middle of Sanford Stadium," she said.

Enrollment has increased 3 percent to 4 percent annually in recent years, and planners don't expect it to slow. With a down economy, it will only grow more, Hamrick said.

"My job is to look 20 years down the road and say, 'These students are coming, how are we going to handle it?' " she said.

She hasn't had an environmental study performed at the Patch, but she did check with the Federal Aviation Administration because of the proximity of Daniel Field airport.

On Friday, the Patch was host to a church golf tournament, and no one who plays the course wants to see it go, Manager Ed Howerton said.

Some golfers on the Augusta Commission, such as subcommittee member Joe Bowles, don't want to abandon the Patch. Bowles would like to see a private management firm take over operations at the course.

"You know you can break even if you get a professional firm to come in with buying economies and professional expertise," he said.

The subcommittee will recommend a direction when the results of an audit come back in a few weeks, Lockett said.

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