Merging Augusta Municipal Golf Course with adjacent First Tee of Augusta would create an “immediate savings” over the city’s budgeted estimates for the year, but the course needs $2.25 million in renovations for it to become truly profitable, businessman Paul Simon told commissioners Monday.
“I want to make sure that everybody understands what we’re proposing,” said Simon, the chairman emeritus of Fore Augusta, which runs the youth golf program First Tee. “We can operate The Patch cheaper than anybody else, because we’re right next door.”
The city-owned course posted losses of $227,778 in 2010 and $204,101 in 2011 before the commission voted to lease it in 2012 to The Patch in Augusta LLC. But the company bailed after a few months, and the course returned to city management, where it remains today, with a projected net loss for the year of $233,567.
“It has made money, and a lot of money, at one time,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, one of just four to attend a Monday work session on the issue. “Had this been treated as it should have … these figures would be totally different.”
Under Simon’s plan, The Patch and First Tee would share management and expenses, with 75 percent paid by the city and 25 percent paid by First Tee. The group would run the course for a short period until renovations begin, then would monitor the renovation of The Patch into a shorter-playing, family-friendly course.
“We’re going to operate it for maybe three years for nothing,” he said. “We don’t get anything. We get some savings. We think long term, it will benefit the First Tee.”
Under the arrangement, once the renovations are completed the First Tee group has three years to show a profit. If it does, it has an option for seven more years. More profits, and the group has an option for another 10 years.
“Ultimately, it could be a 20-year agreement, if we’re successful and profitable,” said Simon, the former president of Morris Communications Co., which owns The Augusta Chronicle.
Simon said his proposal was better than any city plan or proposal offered by a private firm. Any company interested in investing in improvements at the course would want a 20 or 30-year agreement, he said.
“You’ve got the money; I’ve got the expertise, the time,” Simon said. “Once it’s profitable, then we’ll split those profits.”
Williams questioned whether the city’s expenses at the course might negate its 50 percent share of profits. Simon said expenses would be paid before profits were determined.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy asked why The Patch would be profitable if First Tee is not.
The program caters to minority and low-income youth and gives free rounds to youth who can’t pay. It doesn’t expect to be profitable, Simon said.
“We don’t give it to them at The Patch,” he said. “At First Tee, our mission is to let any kid get in there to play whether they can afford it or not.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said a “management fee” arrangement on a shorter term and sliding scale might be preferable to a 50-50 split of profits, but said the proposal’s largest hurdle was likely winning commission approval.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Simon said. “If you went out and hired somebody to do that, it’s going to be a big number. ... If we’re able to take this and do that, we’re entitled to 50 percent.”
Plus, he said, the commission can end the agreement if it isn’t successful in three years.
“I think you’re going to say, ‘Well, let’s keep those folks.’ ”
Commissioner Grady Smith, who has served on the management committee at Forest Hills Golf Course since 1988, said renovations don’t always equal more rounds. Forest Hills’ earlier efforts cost it rounds from players who thought the course was too hard. Now, however, under a private management firm, the state-owned course is “seeing green in the bank.”
Smith also asked if Simon’s group could try to get The Patch in playable shape, and work from there, “instead of going in there soaking all the money you can.”
Simon said a “piecemeal” approach would delay profitability, while profits will come “back to the community.
“That’s one of the things we don’t do enough of, is reinvest into the kids.”
Two commissioners who did not attend the work session were more skeptical.
Commissioner Joe Jackson said he’d rather turn the course over to Paine College, whose golf team currently plays elsewhere, than pay $2.2 million he said the city doesn’t have.
“This is definitely in my opinion, a failure,” Jackson said.
Commissioner Donnie Smith, estimating he’d played “1,000 rounds” at The Patch, also disagreed with the plan.
“I just don’t think we should spend the $2 million and add to the deficit for nonessential services,” such as infrastructure and law enforcement.
Instead, Smith said the city should offer the course up to any firm or entity willing to manage, lease or buy it as a golf course.
“Nobody is going to live or die if there is not a public golf course,” he said.