Oro Valley is bringing in a new company to manage the town-owned golf courses.
Billy Casper Golf will take over management from Troon Golf within the next 90 days.
It’s the latest twist in the town’s management of the golf courses, which has been a major controversy since the Oro Valley Town Council agreed to purchase the golf courses and an associated community center in 2014 from HSL Properties. While the community center has been a popular spot for everything from youth summer camps to senior leisure classes, the golf courses have lost money and required millions in subsidies from a dedicated sales tax.
The resulting controversy triggered a 2015 recall attempt and was a major issue in the 2018 election that brought Mayor Joe Winfield and three new Oro Valley council members into office.
Oro Valley posted a request for proposals Jan. 24 searching for a new course operator. Troon was brought on to handle the golf course, food and beverage, tennis operations, and swimming pool operations in 2015. Since then, the town took over the pool and El Conquistador Tennis, LLC took over tennis.
Troon’s contract was extended twice: once on Sept. 17, 2018 to a Dec. 31, 2019 end-date, and again on Sept. 25, 2019, to end Dec. 31, 2020. The town gave the firm notice of its decision to change operators Wednesday, May 13.
Billy Casper Golf was one of several firms that responded to the town and attended a pre-proposal site visit in February. In total, five firms submitted proposals. Over the course of roughly two weeks, an evaluation committee shortlisted three firms.
Those companies were interviewed and delivered updated proposals. According to assistant town manager Chris Cornelison, Billy Casper Golf provided a “really great overall proposal” in addition to strong customer service, a “comprehensive and robust” training plan for staff, and a strong track record across its courses.
“They also interviewed very well and were very responsive,” Cornelison said. “They’re very focused on data analytics and evaluating their own operations, which obviously helps allow them to have well-informed decisions. It also falls in line with our town manager initiative of process improvement which our town council included in their strategic leadership plan as well.”
Headquartered in Reston, Virginia, Billy Casper Golf owns and operates more than 160 golf courses in 26 states, including 130 municipal and daily-fee golf facilities. The firm was co-founded in 1989 by famous golfer Billy Casper. According to the company’s website, it provides “data-driven decisions that, when paired with inspired content and design, yield high-performing marketing initiatives.”
A selection was made, but Cornelison said Oro Valley is still hammering out the details of the contract. The town expects to finalize the paperwork in the next week or so. In addition to golf operations, Billy Casper will manage food and beverage. The Oro Valley Community Center is home to The Overlook restaurant, and the town council has expressed an interest in reducing its operations and moving service to the ground floor.
Last October, the council voted to continue operating the two 18-hole courses with a series of conditions laid out by Mayor Joe Winfield. Among those terms are that the courses “operate as a municipal public course,” and offer tee times on both courses instead of just one, in order to “maximize play and revenue.” The courses’ bottom line suffered greatly in the first few years of operations, though numbers have marginally improved more recently.
Winfield also asked that staff establish “measurable and time-sensitive targets” for the amount of revenue, rounds of golf played, and memberships, which will be used to “monitor the success of operating and maintaining the 36 holes of golf.” The mayor also wants to see a 10 percent increase in golf memberships and the annual tax subsidy not exceed $750,000.
That decision also lined up the town’s request for proposal, to which Troon also applied and was a finalist.
In addition to overseeing the course operations, Billy Casper Golf will work alongside capital improvements planned for the two courses. During a Nov. 20, 2019, special council meeting, Winfield proposed and passed a plan to complete improvements and irrigation repairs on the 18-hole Conquistador course in the summer of 2021, complete improvements and irrigation repairs on the 18-hole Cañada course the following summer, and schedule improvements to the community center and restaurant for 2023.
Council voted on a pay-as-you-go approach to funding its capital improvements, utilizing expected cash savings from the half-cent sales tax dedicated to the community center’s operations.
More recently, HSL Properties, which owns the El Conquistador resort in Oro Valley and sold the town the community center deal in 2014, decided to operate the adjacent nine-hole Pusch Ridge course beginning Oct. 1, 2020.
At their Feb. 19 meeting, the council voted unanimously to approve a memorandum between the town and HSL. The memorandum states that Oro Valley and HSL will “cooperate in good faith” regarding the shared use of any town-owned facility adjacent to the nine-hole course that is used for golf-related activities, specifically the tennis and golf reservation area of the clubhouse, as well as any tools and equipment used to operate and maintain the course.
That deal also frees the town from an approximate $200,000 annual subsidy.
Moving forward, Troon was given a 90-day notice by the town on Wednesday regarding its intention to change operators, and Oro Valley expects a transition plan to be in place and executed within that time frame.
Town Manager Mary Jacobs said the town will work with Billy Casper Golf to familiarize itself with the membership and develop a business plan and concrete goals for the coming year.
“We obviously want to meet or exceed the town council's direction regarding the level of subsidy that is appropriate and that they identified in their action last fall,” Jacobs said. “We also want to continue to move forward regarding the investments in the two golf courses...Billy Casper Golf has experience in that oversight, and we need to talk with them about where they can assist us with that.”
Even though the town is moving on from Troon, Jacobs said there are no hard feelings and that Oro Valley “has been very lucky” to have a firm of Troon’s caliber running the show for the first five years.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the golf arena that would disagree that where that course came from five years ago to today is night and day,” she said. “Troon really helped the town during the transition of owning this course, and we’re grateful for their assistance and their professionalism along the way.”
Tucson Local Media will continue covering this story. Keep an eye on tucsonlocalmedia.com for updates.