Detroit council picks plan to get golf courses open

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday approved a short-term deal that will restore management to Detroit’s four shuttered golf courses, with an agreement to reopen one on Friday.

The courses — Palmer Park, Chandler Park, Rouge Park and Rackham — have been in a holding pattern and closed since the city’s five-year contract with the Oakland Township-based Vargo Golf expired in November.

The city twice sought bids for 10-year agreements to operate, manage and renovate the courses. The bid was awarded earlier this year to the newly formed Motown Golf Management, but concerns were raised over the company’s lack of management experience, the length of the proposed contract term and its capacity to invest.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell noted that with the league season fast-approaching in the second week of April, the administration opted for a one-year contract extension to keep Vargo in charge. As a result, officials canceled the pending 10-year agreement with Motown, a Detroit-based firm that was promising about $8.1 million to Detroit between lease revenue, various upgrades and grant and scholarship programming.

Hollowell on Tuesday told council members the courses need work, the bids for longer-term management were lacking and “we can probably do better.”

“I don’t think anyone is satisfied with the condition of our courses today,” he said. “But we’re also not satisfied that the bid finalists ... can perform as stated.”

The approval will allow Vargo to open Rackham on Friday. The Rouge Park course will open on April 1, Chandler Park will follow on April 8 and Palmer Park should be open on May 1, Hollowell said.

Council President Brenda Jones stressed the council needs assurances the courses, especially Palmer and Chandler, won’t be in worse condition moving forward than they are in today.

“If we are going to be a world-class city, we have to look at our recreation centers as well as our golf courses,” Jones told Hollowell.

Rob Vargo of Vargo Golf told the council that he was in contact with his staff Monday evening and they are “ready to roll on this.”

Vargo noted his company helped bring the Rackham and Rouge Park courses into superior shape.

Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Motown officials addressed the council, arguing the company was “treated unfairly” with the administration’s last-minute move. They also urged council members to consider instead a shorter, five-year management agreement.

Motown Vice President Jason Pearsall and others from the company noted many of its 25 staff members formerly held various roles with Vargo. The workers, he said, didn’t agree with how the courses were run and wanted to move on to a different group that could do better.

Pearsall said the company had to recruit and hire staff in preparation for the deal after it was awarded the bid earlier this year. He stressed the hardships the company’s workers and their families will now endure.

“We will all be jobless,” he said.

Pearsall had said he received an email Friday afternoon informing him the bid to manage the courses was being canceled.

“These families will be affected,” he said. “This is not right.”

The deal with Motown, a company formally established in November, moved out of the council’s Neighborhood and Community Services committee on Thursday and had been slated to go before the full council for a vote without a recommendation to approve or deny it.

But council members raised concern over the length of the proposed contract, advocating instead for a five-year deal with annual renewal options. There were also worries over the young company’s lack of management experience.

Jones noted Tuesday that while the administration may have earlier awarded the bid to Motown, the council had not yet signed off on the contract.

“I would not advise anyone to quit a job prior to council approving a contract,” Jones told Motown officials, adding there’s also concern over the length of the proposed contract and uncertainty over how the newly formed company “is going to handle the golf courses.”

Hollowell said the contract with Vargo will serve as a placeholder. A new request for proposals for future operation of the courses is expected to go out by June.

“We need to make sure we have the right blend of experience and financial strength,” Hollowell said.