A Virginia-based company is courting Elgin with hopes that the city will agree to privatize golf operations at Bowes Creek Country Club, which has been ranked among the state’s premier golf courses and has been recognized nationally, as well.
But city officials are greeting the inquiry with skepticism at a number of levels, largely related to the timing of the emailed inquiry by Billy Casper Golf.
Mayor David Kaptain mentioned the email solicitation from Billy Casper Golf as the City Council visited the city-owned Bowes Creek facilities during a special council meeting Wednesday evening. Council members took a tour of the 220-acre golf course and its facilities before reviewing the city’s overall golf operations and finances.
Kaptain said the inquiry by Billy Casper Golf came unsolicited and said that he believed someone other than the city actually had contacted the company.
Kaptain declined to say whom he believes that might be.
But the timing of the inquiry comes just three weeks after the Elgin Budget Advisory Task Force began meeting to recommend priorities for spending cuts and generating new revenues as the city struggles with a $4.5 million budget deficit.
Members of one group, Elgin OCTAVE, which formed to overturn the city’s nearly 2-year-old business license and to push the City Council to budget funding only for core services, have criticized Elgin’s golf operations and other parks programs, going so far as to suggest the golf facilities be sold off.
Skepticism over privatization
Earlier in the meeting, while the City Council was touring Bowes Creek Country Club, an obviously skeptical Kaptain asked Elgin Golf Operations Director Mike Lehman what he thought about privatizing the facility.
Lehman questioned the timing of the inquiry by Billy Casper Golf, although not as it relates to the task force deliberations or the criticisms from OCTAVE.
Instead, he focused on the inquiry coming after the city has wrapped up its development phase on Bowes Creek and is well along into marketing the facility to draw in full members, as well as attract other golfers. That means a lot of the tougher, more costly work is already in the past for the city.
The facility first opened in 2009, although its first full season of golf did not begin until 2010.
Lehman pointed out that the development phase is the toughest and most expensive part of starting up a golf course operation. Should the city opt to privatize the course now, any company coming in would avoid the risks and expense the city already has invested in the facility.
Further, Bowes Creek is meeting revenue and related projections. “Now we’re seeing the successes,” he said.
Later, as the council convened in a private dining area of the golf course’s restaurant, Porter’s Pub, Lehman pointed out that operations last year were considered dismal as a result of the restaurant operator then. That turned around substantially this year, Lehman said, when the city contracted with Carlucci Hospitality to run Porter’s Pub. Porter’s had gross receipts totaling $90,000 a month in the past two months, Lehman told the council. H e added that Carlucci’s addition of live music at Porter’s Pub on Friday nights has pushed gross receipts to new highs — they totaled $9,000 just on Friday, Aug. 26. Further, Carlucci’s success is an indicator that Porter’s Pub will be entirely funded by its own revenues in the coming year.
Lehman also touted retail sales, such as through the club’s pro shop, grossed $130,000 last year, adding that 35 percent of that is profit that can be pumped back into golf course operations.
Membership goals on target
Also weighing heavily into the revenue picture, Bowes Creek already has 113 annual members with just more than a year of operations under its belt, Lehman said. The city’s goal was to have 120 to 125 annual memberships within three years of opening.
“So as you can see, we are well within reach of that — we’ve got time” to meet that, he said.
The cost of annual memberships range from $4,000 for corporate memberships, to $4,400 for individual memberships, to $6,000 for family memberships. In addition, there is an assortment of lower-priced annual memberships for younger players choosing to sign up with an individual member, such as a parent.
The facility is open to public use as well, but instead of green fees, has daily membership fees ranging from $49 to $98, depending on the day of the week, time of day, and residency. Elgin residents get a discount. These “member for a day” rates allow unlimited golf for the day, including the use of a cart, and access to facilities on the expansive, 220-acre property.
No debt owed on $16 million Bowes facility
But city officials note there are other factors to consider that also weigh against privatizing the facility.
Elgin developed Bowes Creek Country Club in partnership with luxury homes developer Toll Brothers, which invested the money into the golf course and its facilities and related equipment.
The developer wanted to create a development featuring high-end homes in a country club setting, replete with access to golfing. But Toll Brothers did not want to take on ownership of a country club, so it partnered with the city to do so.
Toll Brothers paid for the development of the golf course and it amenities, which include the clubhouse and ancillary facilities, such as a maintenance garage, as well as $1 million in specialized equipment needed just to care for the greens, fairways and rough areas. Toll Brothers also agreed to provide some initial subsidies to the course for its first years of operation.
As its part of the venture, the city waived $8 million in impact fees, city officials said. That, they point out, gave the city a “premier $16 million golf course” and its amenities for just $8 million in impact fees that otherwise might not have been paid: The golf facility was considered an essential ingredient to Toll Brothers’ development plans for the area.
Further, in response to questions from Councilman Richard Dunne, Elgin Chief Financial Officer Colleen Lavery pointed out the city has absolutely no debt related to its golf operation.
Concern about quality experience
Earlier in the evening, right after Mayor Kaptain put him on the spot about privatizing Bowes Creek, Lehman expressed concern that a private company, in the pursuit of profits, would cut the quality of the golfing experience that already has earned Bowes Creek a ranking from Golf Week as among the state’s top 10 golf courses.
Bowes Creek Country Club, he said, was intended to provide a country club-style experience but at significantly lower prices, and it is doing so.
Those who have purchased annual memberships at Bowes Creek have done so because of the quality of service provided. In addition to the facility’s country club feel, he said, it is open to the public who can be “members for a day,” which draws golfers from all over the region, not just in Elgin.Privatizing the facility, he said, could put all that at risk.