Asheville owed golf course operator Muni $325,000, public records show
ASHEVILLE — A 10-year lease agreement with Pope Golf, the company responsible for the day-to-day operations and maintenance of Asheville’s historic municipal golf course, has resulted in steadily deteriorating course conditions and $324,934 in golf course payments. unpaid rentals to the city, according to public records obtained by the Citizen Times.
A June 29 letter from the city attorney’s office to Keith Pope, CEO of Sarasota, Fla.-based Pope Golf, said the city intended to sue over overdue rental payments, some of which have been accumulating since 2016.
Chris Corl, director of community and regional entertainment facilities for the city, said Aug. 25 that the legal department has been in communication with Pope’s attorney and no lawsuits have yet been filed.
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He hopes the matter will be resolved amicably.
“I would say that we are working together to resolve the situation and find the right solution between us and Pope Golf for the overdue payments,” Corl said.
Pope did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The city’s management and lease contract with Pope Golf began on October 1, 2012 and expires on September 30.
“I would say it was mutual not to extend with them,” Corl told the Citizen Times.
The Asheville City Council has already approved a licensing and management agreement with a new operator, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC, which will begin October 1.
For the past 10 years, responsibility for the upkeep, improvements and general upkeep of the course has been with Pope Golf.
North Carolina’s first public golf course and the first to be integrated into the Southeast, the Asheville Municipal Golf Course is the newest affordable public pay course in Asheville, Corl said.
The 18-hole golf course was designed by Hall of Fame golf architect Donald Ross and opened in 1927. It is home to the nation’s longest running black-owned and operated professional tournament.
While Corl said Pope Golf had made some improvements since 2012, “there are also a lot of areas that have declined since they took over”.
He acknowledged that the course was in “poor condition”, with infrastructure needs ranging from repairing storm water drains to upgrading tee boxes and improving greens and sand.
The city is embark on a project of about 2.5 million dollars to initiate these capital improvements and is seeking grants from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, as well as other sources.
In its capital improvement plan for fiscal year 2023, the city has earmarked $1.1 million for course improvements.
Under Pope Golf’s lease agreement, the company was tasked with providing the city with a capital project schedule and budget.
Corl said this was supposed to happen every year, “but they never submitted a capital improvement plan to us, so no capital improvements happened during that time.”
For regular golfers on the course, the condition has become “deplorable”, according to a reader of the Citizen Timesstrong language that 83-year-old Lonnie Gilliam, who has been golfing on the course since 1966, was quick to back up.
“The conditions there are terrible,” Gilliam said. Having seen the course at its “apogee” and participated in the Skyview Golf Tournament for years he said it was the worst state the course had ever been in.
Gilliam said he golfs at the course almost five days a week.
“For some reason, once Pope took over, nothing was done,” Gilliam said. He described an abyssal scene – sand traps without sand, an overgrown green, sinkholes caused by an outdated drainage systemsoil erosion and broken cart paths.
“It took a nose dive. They did nothing but collect the money and mow the grass.
Gilliam said he and other golfers were “delighted” to find Pope Golf would not be renewing his contract.
$324,934 in overdue lease payments?
According to an invoice obtained by the Citizen Times, the first underpayment dates back to 2016.
Payments are due to the city quarterly. According to the lease agreement, for the first three years, Pope Golf paid the city $72,000 per year.
After the first three years, this flat rate was to be recalculated at 10% of the average adjusted gross revenue earned during the first three years, in accordance with the rental agreement. That amounted to $84,593 per year, Corl said.
But Pope Golf never paid the extra $12,593 a year. These payments, which amounted to $3,148 per year, were shown on the invoice as “unbilled amount(s)”.
Corl said the city was not billing the additional $3,148 per quarter until the first bill of 2022, “but the rental formula in the lease they signed made it clear that they were responsible for the additional amount, and therefore we billed retroactively for all applicable quarters before.”
Until 2019, Pope Golf continued to pay $72,000 per year, but as of June 2019, Pope Golf stopped paying the lease amount altogether.
According to the city’s demand letter, if legal action were to be taken, the city’s senior assistant attorney, Eric Edgerton, told Pope Golf that the city would seek “treble damages” of 974,802. $, in addition to the cost of litigation.
“The City further understands from the statements you have made to its employees that (Pope Golf Asheville) has, in all likelihood, deliberately depleted its assets for the purpose of rendering it proof of judgment,” indicates the letter.
Corl said the nonpayment was due to ongoing discussions and disputes over stormwater improvement and capital costs, and who paid the bill.
He said he couldn’t say much more about the background because until Jan. 1, 2022, the municipal golf course was under the management of Asheville Parks and Recreation. It wasn’t until early this year that Corl’s Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities department took over management of the course.
Despite the non-payment, Corl said Pope Golf “eviction” was not a good option without an established plan if the city intended to continue operating the course.
Without proper care, he said a green can die in less than three weeks. The city chose to continue working with Pope in hopes of resolving the issue.
“It was never an oil/water situation. They still run the course on our behalf; we are always trying to open this course to the general public,” Corl said.
“We still have very affordable golf, so it’s good to keep the course open and try to work with them at the back to try and find a solution.”
Despite the course’s challenges — which, before Pope Golf took over operation in 2012, lost $539,000 in four years, according to Statement of the Citizen Times – it’s a vital part of Asheville’s history, Corl said.
“It’s everything I think people think golf should be,” Corl said.
“There are a lot of good things happening there that people don’t realize can happen with golf because of the stigma that golf has endured for decades as a sport for wealthy white people only. That’s not it at Muni.
He was excited for the city to begin working with Commonwealth Golf Partners.
Corl said it will be a new management model. Rather than a lease agreement, like the one the city had with Pope Golf, the Asheville City Council on August 23 approved a license and management/operating agreement.
While it carries more financial risk for the city, it allows the city to dictate course maintenance levels and retain control of maximum allowable green fees and pass holder rates, according to a staff report on operator agreement.
In the event of a quarterly loss, the city will be responsible for 65% of the losses and the Commonwealth responsible for 35%.
In the case of a quarterly profit, Commonwealth will earn 100% of the first $5,000, then 55% of the remaining revenue, while the city takes 45% of all revenue after the first $5,000.
Commonwealth will manage and execute capital projects on behalf of the city.
“It opens a new door, creates a new life,” Corl said of the new operator.
“And when you think of the people… who are there regularly, speak fondly of the course, but know what its current status is, a change of direction is a very, very good start to invigorate people to make them realize, ‘Hey, we we’re doing something.'”
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A community meeting with the new operators will be held at 6 p.m. on September 1 at the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Community Center.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Current advice? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter @slhonosky.