Golf gardens set to close at June's end

A plan is under way to close the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame's Botanical Gardens at the end of the month.

But given the dismal activity levels at the struggling Reynolds Street facility, the move might have gone unnoticed had word not leaked of the announcement planned for today.

Robyn Jarrett, the Golf Hall of Fame's marketing director, confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the board of directors intends to close the gardens, tentatively on June 30. Board Chairman Bryan Persons, of Macon, made the announcement to staffers Tuesday, she said.

Six full-time employees and four part-time employees will be laid off at the end of July. A few booked weddings still have to be accommodated, Ms. Jarrett said.

The facility was dealt a blow last week when Gov. Sonny Perdue made an 11th-hour decision to veto funds for Augusta projects before signing the state's $20.2 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. He cut $633,685 from the Golf Hall of Fame.

Ms. Jarrett said the board will still look for funding, and in the meantime two members will likely handle administration of the Golf Hall of Fame. However, the board is also weighing its options for the property. Adjacent land is being considered by some city leaders as a site for a downtown baseball stadium.

"Since we've only had three business days really to wrap our arms around the veto. There are still a lot of unanswered questions," Ms. Jarrett said Tuesday.

State Sen. Ed Tarver said Augusta's legislators aren't giving up. The delegation is looking for a local source of money to keep the gardens open until state money can be reallocated. He said $500,000 would keep the facility operating for another year.

Asked Tuesday why it should be saved, Mr. Tarver said that before the gardens opened in 2001, the state bought up private property under the threat of condemnation. It would be wrong, he said, for that land to be sold back to a private developer. The gardens are part of 17 acres of state property along Reynolds Street.

"Since taking that property, it has never been properly funded by the state," Mr. Tarver said. "The state of Georgia, in my mind, never honored its commitment to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame."

The gardens drew 160,000 visitors last year, Ms. Jarrett said, well below the 300,000 originally projected for the facility when it was envisioned with an interactive museum to go with the gardens and putting course. It was conceived as a $30 million project, but a building to house the Golf Hall of Fame was never constructed.

Money for the golf hall and gardens was once included in a $30 million economic development package promised for Augusta, a package credited to now-imprisoned former Sen. Charles Walker. But when Democrats' power waned at the state Capitol, $10 million of the package was withheld.

A state audit this year helped document how the golf hall has spent more than $13 million in public funds since its inception in the early 1990s but has little more than gardens, statues, and putting greens to show for it. The audit also found about $1,300 in improper expenditures, including employee massages and wine.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the governor thought the amount the General Assembly included in the budget for the golf hall was excessive - a nearly 1,000 percent increase over last year. Mr. Perdue has supported the hall in past years, but he wasn't willing to accept such a large increase. The hall and botanical gardens received about $58,000 in the prior year's budget.

Under state law, governors can either accept individual items in the budget or veto the whole line containing that item.

"Because all those funds are wrapped up into the same line item, the governor only had the choice of to line item the whole thing or accepting the whole thing. As he said in his veto message, that seemed like an excessive amount," Mr. Brantley said.

Staff Writer Justin Boron contributed to this article.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.