Detroit may explore sale of one golf course, fix others

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city could pursue the sale of one of its four golf courses, shut another down for significant renovation and pour several million into fixes at two others under a proposal unveiled Wednesday by Detroit’s administration.

Charlie Beckham, who oversees recreation as group executive for the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, presented the plan to Detroit’s City Council during its formal session, saying the courses “are not in good shape” and it’s “something that we as a community should not be proud of.”

The plan comes after an advisory group assembled in the spring to evaluate necessary repairs and future use of the courses. The city also brought on Florida-based National Golf Foundation as a consultant for the effort.

Under the plan, the city would explore the potential sale or disposition of its Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods.

But the concept remains up in the air, Beckham stressed, since the course is one of two with deed restrictions that require permanent use of the site as a golf course.

If Detroit did opt to sell, the process would require council approval and agreement of each of the course’s heirs.

So far, some heirs have been contacted in partnership with Huntington Woods officials. Those reached, Beckham noted, have “not been very positive about wanting to sell it.”

Other conditions require any sale be made to another municipality and that a prohibition of beer and wine sales remain in place.

“We will still operate and maintain that course until we can ascertain what the actual sale potential is,” said Beckham, who noted a lease arrangement could be an option. “We’re going to have to get creative because the consultants tell us there’s no great market for selling golf courses right now.”

The course needs upgrades to its drainage, greens and fairways and clubhouse, among other things. Cost estimates for repairs could range from $2.9 to $4.3 million, according to the consultant report.

Separately, Detroit would sink $3.5 to 4 million into short-term fixes at the Rouge and Chandler Park golf courses. Upgrades would be funded under the city’s capital budget and begin next spring, Beckham said.

The city also would shutter its Palmer Park course for a complete overhaul. The course, which the consultants concluded is the city’s “most challenged,” already had its back nine shut down since halfway through this season due to irrigation issues.

Beckham said the proposal envisions transforming the site into a nine-hole course and golf training center, likely through partnerships and private dollars. The project would have the course closed for the next two seasons.

Council President Brenda Jones noted Wednesday that the Rouge and Chandler courses both are in dire need of clubhouse expansions and wants assurances that will be factored in.

“The way we make money in those facilities would be expanding those facilities,” she said.

Councilman Scott Benson was happy to hear the city is recommitting to golf and said he wants more specifics on funding support for the projects.

“We have to look at what it’s going to take to create the atmosphere or to invest in our assets at that level,” said Benson, who said he doesn’t support the sale of any of the city-owned courses.

In the interim, the administration plans to solicit bids in the coming weeks to hire a company to operate and maintain the courses for the next two seasons.

Earlier this year, some council members were resistant to the consultant study over concerns it would be geared toward alternative uses for the courses.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said the recommendations align with her goal of keeping all of the courses open but also wants to know where the funding to do the work may be coming from.

“That is the question that I have that’s still in the air for me,” she said. “And is it going to divert money from local recreation centers.”

Beckham said earlier this year that he was hoping to get the post-bankrupt city out of the golf business. A 2016 survey found the city would need to spend $5 million-$6 million to get all the courses into proper shape.

“We think we now have a pretty good direction of where we ought to go with these courses,” Beckham said. “Get Rackham out of the way and deal with the three others that are in Detroit. That’s where we’re headed.”

The city’s courses are currently being operated by Robert James Golf under a short-term management contract. The firm is part of Oakland Township-based Vargo Golf Co., which has managed the courses since 2010.

The city previously sought bids for 10-year agreements to operate, manage and renovate the courses.

Last year, a bid was awarded to newly formed Motown Golf Management, but concerns were later raised over the company’s lack of management experience, the length of the proposed contract and its capacity to invest.

City revenue last year 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, city documents show.