Note: This story was last updated at 10:50 a.m. Dec. 15.
Despite some opposition, the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday approved a $325,000 transfer for operations at Tennessee Centennial Golf Course.
About $225,000 of the transfer, a cash infusion, would be for outstanding accounts payable, including for expenses that include clothing in the pro shop, a management fee, fertilizer, and irrigation costs. Another $100,000 is operational funding for the winter, including maintenance of the greens.
It’s the first non-debt related transfer from the city’s General Fund to the Golf Course Fund since the golf course was built, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said. Separately, the city still owes about $3 million in debt-related bond payments on the golf course. It’s expected to be paid off in five years.
Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn cast the only vote against the operating transfer. All six of the other City Council members voted “yes.”
Watson said the golf course, which has whittled its staff down to four full-time employees, was affected by several factors this past year, most notably weather.
“This has been a difficult year,” Watson said. “There was not enough revenues coming in from the rounds of golf to pay for the operations side…Right now, we have to take care of vendors that need to be paid.”
He said there were 60 days this year, or about two months, when 20 rounds of golf or less were played. There were also costs associated with the February freeze, including broken pipelines that leaked and had to be repaired in the clubhouse ceiling.
“We really need a cash infusion,” Watson said. “We know of no other way we can do this.”
Beginning last winter, the city manager said earlier, Centennial faced major long-term freezes in February that destroyed significant patches of turf, requiring re-sodding and maintenance. Additional fertilizer treatments and turf repairs were needed.
“This is the first time we’ve had to do this,” Watson said. “I think this will get the ship righted.”
Several of those who voted in favor of the transfer said the money was due, and the city had to pay the bills.
“We have a contract in force,” Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said.
“We can’t refuse to pay them,” said City Council member Rick Chinn. “We owe this money.”
The golf course, one of two in the city, remains controversial two decades after it was built and opened in 1996, part of the Parcel A development in east Oak Ridge. Some critics raise questions about whether the surrounding residential development has been significant enough to justify building the golf course and continue paying debt on it. But current city officials point out that the decision to build the course was made under a former City Council and former city manager.
Baughn said the golf course has not been profitable.
“The taxpayers have poured a ton of money into this golf course that we never wanted,” she said. “It was sold to the public as self-sustaining.”
But Nick Bednar, regional operations director for golf course contractor Billy Casper Golf, said Centennial has been profitable in the past. Some years are good, and some years are bad, he told City Council.
Overall, it’s sustainable, Bednar said. Officials said they are working hard to promote the golf course and bring in new business. They said there is a new manager, Don Tillar Jr., who is working diligently to improve the spring leagues and tournament schedules, and the course is being aggressively marketed to customers.
“I feel very confident that we have some momentum in our business,” Bednar said.
This was an unusual year, he said. The ice storm, which affected various operations in Oak Ridge for about two weeks, had lasting damage on the turf at the golf course, and Centennial was closed for the longest time it’s ever been closed.
Still, Council members raised questions about whether the City Council would again be asked for money for Centennial.
Baughn has advocated for selling the golf course.
She cited numbers that city officials said they weren’t aware of that showed overall revenues since 1998 have been $18 million, and expenditures have been $20 million.
“It hasn’t been profitable,” Baughn said. The contractor is being paid to operate Centennial at a loss, she said. “At what point do we cut our losses and say ‘enough is enough?'”
But Bednar said operations were profitable in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
“We have added money to the operating account in three of the past five years,” he said. “It is not too far in the distant past.”
Other city officials—including Watson, Chinn, and Council members Chuck Hope and Ellen Smith—suggested that selling the golf course is not a viable option.
“I don’t think that’s the solution,” Chinn said. “We’re stuck.”
Officials said the city still owes $3 million on Centennial and would probably get a fraction of that if the course were sold, citing another East Tennessee course that sold for less than $1 million.
Most of the residents who spoke at Monday night’s meeting seemed to be in favor of the operational transfer.
It’s another recreational facility, said former Oak Ridge Fire Chief Mack Bailey, who is also a golfer. He said he’s not aware of any other recreational facilities in Oak Ridge that make money, even ones that do charge fees.
“Golf courses are parks,” said one resident who lives on Rockbridge Greens Boulevard, near the golf course. “You have to look at it as a park.”
He said Centennial is a tough course with one of the best layouts in the area—an excellent facility—and the people running it are doing the best they can with limited resources.
City Council member Charlie Hensley said the golf course needs to make reasonable money, but doesn’t have to make money. He suggested it’s an important asset to help attract new residents and young families.
Baughn responded to the comparisons between the golf course and recreational facilities.
“This is an elitist recreational facility that most of the community can’t afford,” she said.
She proposed trying to find other alternatives, and she made an unsuccessful motion to reduce the operational transfer by $70,000, which is the amount to be paid to Billy Casper Golf.
“Billy Casper managed this for the past 15 years,” Baughn said. “They obviously haven’t done a good job.”
But her motion failed due to a lack of a second.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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