Commission considers partnering with Paul Simon on beleaguered golf course
Commissioner Bill Lockett, a vocal and longstanding critic of the management agreements for the TEE Center and its parking deck, found himself surprisingly allied with the architect of those agreements when it came to the management of city’s municipal golf course, known as “The Patch.”
Paul Simon, whose Augusta Riverfront LLC manages the city-owned convention center and parking deck, approached the Public Services Committee Monday with the idea of a partnership between the First Tee of Augusta, a youth golf program that he helped establish and for which he’s currently chairman emeritus, and the city that would keep the Patch open and under the city’s control.
Previous plans, including the failed lease to a Scottish businessman and a recent, aborted attempt to lease it to Virginia Beach Golf Management, have limited the city’s control over the property, considered to be an asset by many on the commission, including Donnie Smith, who said city mismanagement has been responsible for running it into the ground.
This plan would be a partnership that would leave the city responsible for losses, yet allow it a 50/50 share of the profits.
Lockett congratulated Simon for the idea and its execution.
“For the last three years, I fought bout after bout after bout telling us not to give it away, that the Patch is a gold mine for us, that we can make money off of it,” Lockett said. “Some of my colleagues have tried to give it away, they tried to sell it, they tried to get it in a hundred-year lease — they tried everything. But I’m glad to see, Mr. Simon, that finally today I have someone on my side that recognizes what the Municipal Golf Course is all about and what an asset it could be for this community.”
Given Lockett’s previous hostility, that was high praise indeed, and Simon took it as such.
“Most cities would give their right arm to have a golf course within the city limits of this quality that they could develop and offer an opportunity to everybody to play golf,” Simon said, emphasizing the populist nature of the course. “Now, [Development Director] Walter Sprouse can say to a company president when somebody calls about coming to Augusta they he can be a member at West Lake or the Augusta Country Club, but his workers, who can’t afford that, don’t have a reasonable place to play, and I think this would do it.”
Simon said the idea for the partnership started to form the last time he was before the commission to talk about the convention center, during which commissioners were discussing what to do with the Patch after the Virginia Beach firm withdrew its proposal. Then, he said, commissioners were talking about everything from closing the Patch, as well as the aquatic center and the tennis center, to investing a significant portion of remaining SPLOST money into the course to improve the chances of leasing it to simply finding the proper person to manage the facility. He simply connected the dots.
“Taking all that into consideration, I started thinking about how the First Tee could fit in,” he said.
Simon was chairman of the group that started the First Tee of Augusta approximately 15 years ago, navigating the process of getting it built and operational. The Arnold Palmer-designed six-hole course abuts the Patch, and by last year it was serving more than 1,000 students a year, teaching golf and life skills to a diverse group of students Simon described as a cross section of the community.
Thirty-seven percent of the students are female, more than 50 percent are minority and, economically, participants are distributed across the financial spectrum.
The partnership Simon proposed would be similar to the one he crafted for the convention center, in that the Fore Augusta Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the First Tee, would submit an annual plan to the commission for approval.
“You would have the opportunity to approve the rates that we’re charging, the membership fees that we’re charging and the capital improvements that we need,” he said. “We would share the profits of the Patch 50/50.”
Simon said he expected the arrangement to bring the city more than the $25,000 proposed by the Virginia Beach firm. It’s a risk and reward similar to what he ultimately asked them to do with the management of the TEE Center, though in this case, the direct rewards are more tangible and likely more forthcoming.
According to Simon, the liabilities of the plan are something the commission has already considered and the assets would lie in the advantages of consolidating the operations of the two facilities.
“Under [Commissioner Marion Williams’] idea, if you ran the Patch, you’d suffer the losses,” Simon said. “You also have the capital improvements responsibility. I’m asking you to do the same thing under this plan — you fund the losses. But the losses will be less because we can operate it cheaper than anybody else.”
Administrator Fred Russell seemed to agree, stating that although the two companies previously interested in managing the Patch were still expressing interest in the project, he slowed down the process after speaking with Simon.
“After taking with Mr. Simon about a week and a half ago, I’m of the opinion that we could better tailor the deal that makes you happy if we deal locally,” he said.
While the committee asked Russell to move the process forward, the overall reaction to the idea appeared overwhelmingly positive, even from those like Lockett who have been critical of Simon’s previous projects.
Commissioner Alvin Mason, who described the golf course gem that needed to be polished rather than a diamond in the rough, called it a good day.
“To look across and see you advocate for this — there’s something about it,” he said. “The look on your face is totally different. I just find that your passion about this is captivating.” You Might Also Like: