1-year deal OK’d for Detroit golf courses to operate

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A short-term agreement will ensure Detroit’s four municipal golf courses are operating in time for league season next month, according a new management deal.

The Detroit City Council’s unanimous support of a one-year deal with Robert James Golf comes after members turned down the contract last week, leaving the fate of golf season and course management in limbo.

Council members weren’t pleased with the deal, arguing it won’t allow for improvements to the sites. But the council agreed Tuesday it didn’t want to scrap the agreement at the expense of Detroit golfers.

“I did not want to put the residents in that situation,” said Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, who made a motion at Tuesday’s formal session to have the measure reconsidered. “But I did want to let my vote show that I was very clear on making sure that we had a long-term strategy and that we do our best with our courses.”

Under the newly approved deal, the contractor will handle upkeep of the greens, fairways, fencing, landscaping and maintenance at Rackham in Huntington Woods as well as Palmer Park, Chandler Park and Rouge Park in Detroit. The company will also cover utility costs.

Robert James Golf is an affiliate of Vargo Golf Co., which has managed the city’s courses for the last six years. Its current one-year agreement with Detroit was set to expire Tuesday.

Operation of the city’s courses was also up in the air last year after a 10-year deal with a newly formed company to operate, manage and renovate the courses fell apart amid concerns over inexperience and its ability to invest. The administration instead crafted a short-term extension with Vargo.

Charlie Beckham, group executive of the Duggan administration’s Department of Neighborhoods, is hoping to get Detroit out of the golf business.

Beckham, who oversees recreation, has said city officials should study the prospect of selling at least some of the courses as interest and investment in them have declined. A survey last year, he said, found the city would need $5million to 6 million to get the courses into shape.

The latest management deal calls for an advisory council to keep tabs on management and recommended improvements for the courses. Beckham said the group will be formed on April 1, with representation selected in part by his neighborhoods department and the council.

The advisory panel will report its findings in October after the group and city study the issue.

“What this will do is at least the get the courses open for this year, which is what we think the regular golfers in our league want to do,” Beckham told council members.

“But while we’re doing that, comprehensively look at what is the long-term disposition of these courses.”

Last year, revenue for the golf courses was about $42,000. That’s down from about $104,000 the prior year and $125,000 in the three fiscal years before that. Beckham said revenue dropped because a portion went toward settling a $442,000 water bill Vargo had for the courses.

Vargo is obligated to pay the city 1 percent of its profits, or $25,000, if sales reached $2.5 million, according to the new contract.

Some council members were quick Tuesday to say they wouldn’t want the city to unload its golf courses. Any sale would need to gain the council’s approval and at least two of the courses, Rackham and Palmer Park, have deed restrictions.

“I do not support selling any of our golf courses now or in the future,” Councilman Scott Benson said.