When the previous Oro Valley Town Council voted to purchase 45 holes of golf and a community center from nearby resort owner HSL Properties, they reasoned it would place more than 100 valuable acres in the center of town under ownership of the local government, protecting it from outside developers who had their own personal interests.
“I didn’t realize we needed to protect this land from ourselves,” councilmember Bill Rodman said at last Wednesday’s council meeting.
The current town council, which comprises seven members elected after the purchase was made in December 2014, have expressed deep disagreement over the courses’ future.
Last summer, Mayor Joe Winfield, Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett and councilmembers Josh Nicolson and Joyce Jones-Ivey ran successful campaigns that aligned over a common goal to reduce taxpayer support to the golf facilities. The fate of the courses have remained in limbo ever since.
The options, as laid out by Oro Valley town staff, are to keep the current 36 holes, change to a 27- or 18-hole configuration, or completely close the courses and convert it to natural desert open space or public parks. The 9-hole Pusch Ridge course would likely be leased back to HSL Properties.
Town Manager Mary Jacobs and staff previously outlined costs for each option, including capital improvement and repurposing expenses. They had the courses’ operational data audited by outside agencies. They solicited a $50,000 study from a consultants group, and consulted with Troon Privé, the management contractor of the courses, to predict future trends.
That work put forth an analysis that identified 36 holes as the least expensive option for retaining golf. The “no golf” option is less expensive, but the town projects losing out on more than $1 million annual revenues from golfers.
Much like the previous special meeting on golf held two weeks ago at the Church of the Nazarene, a majority of residents who chose to address the council felt that the 36 holes should remain. Residents who live adjacent to the courses are concerned about losing their backyard views of green fairways and, as a result, seeing their property values plummet.
At the July 31 meeting, the four-member majority indicated that after eight months in office, they weren’t ready to make a final decision on the golf courses yet because of differences in the projections from members of the Oro Valley budget and finance commission and the town staff.
But the budget and finance commission analysis had significant accounting errors, according to Jacobs and Oro Valley Chief Financial Officer Stacey Lemos.
“We are certainly willing to work with the budget and finance commission to make sure we’re on the numbers,” Jacobs said at the meeting. “But they had some fairly large mistakes in those presented spreadsheets that I would want to ensure are corrected before there [is] a fair apples-to-apples comparison.”
Lemos said the commission analysis removed revenues for food and beverage at the community center, but did not remove the expenses as well. Councilmember Steve Solomon said there was no basis for equating the incorrect numbers to the town’s audited numbers.
But because of the difference in opinions, Winfield said he wanted another study to be conducted by a landscape architect, who could lay out repurposing plans and costs, a construction timeline and yearly maintenance costs.
He made a motion to direct town staff to put out a request for proposal and was supported by Barrett, Nicolson and Jones-Ivey. Councilmembers Solomon, Rodman and Rhonda Piña voted against the move.
This new study will set the town back another two months in making a decision. Jacobs estimated that the contract with an architect could be finalized by the end of September, and the results would come back sometime in November, if not later.
The council had originally agreed to make a final decision before Sept. 30, mainly because the golf memberships will be up for renewal at that time. Winfield told Tucson Local Media that September wasn’t a “hard and fast” deadline for the golf decision, though he would like it to be made sooner rather than later.
Jacobs said she is working with town staff this week to determine what the impact of membership dues will look like and what their operational plan should be. She does not have a comment on the potential impact at this time, but said the staff should come to a conclusion soon.
At the meeting, Rodman called the move for another study “unconscionable,” while Solomon said it was a “delay tactic” meant to further the uncertainty regarding golf financials.
“If we don’t have that $800,000 or $900,000 from the members beginning in October, you’ll be right,” Rodman told the mayor. “The golf course won’t be able to work.”
Rodman, Solomon and Piña have made it evident in their public remarks that they support retaining the 36 holes of golf and spending the $3.8 million on capital improvements.
“I firmly believe that if we look at the revenue side, and not just all the expense side, we can somehow as a community get back together and try to make this work,” Piña said. “We will have a brand that Oro Valley is known for, rather than recalls and all the negative things that come along with that.”
She said the whole situation feels like a “grudge match” that stems from the previous council, led by former mayor Satish Hiremath, who completed the purchase in 2014 for $1 million. It led to a recall attempt the following year that ultimately failed to unseat Hiremath and former councilmembers Lou Waters, Mary Snider and Joe Hornat.
“From previous council members and going forward with community members getting sideways with one another—when is it going to stop?” Piña said.
Rodman and Solomon agreed that the town’s analysis shows Oro Valley can afford any of the four options, so deliberating over projections and budget spreadsheets is unnecessary.
In addition, each of the four options relies on the town’s half-cent sales tax that was enacted during the purchase of the facilities. Solomon said if they get rid of golf, the taxpayers are still paying for it regardless.
At this point, they believe it’s more about what the residents of Oro Valley want in their community.
“This isn’t about numbers anymore, we’ve chased numbers for four and a half years,” Rodman said. “We can argue about it until we’re blue in the face … it doesn’t really matter. The whole thing is five percent of our budget.”
At the end of the meeting, Solomon made a motion to approve the 36-hole option, which was quickly tabled by Barrett with support from Winfield, Nicolson and Jones-Ivey.
“This is a challenging issue because the community is quite divided on it, so I will try to find something that could work for everyone,” Barrett told Tucson Local Media last week. “I’m afraid that will be more challenging than I thought.”