The Oro Valley Town Council debated late into the night last Wednesday, Oct. 2, and came away with a 6-1 vote to keep the town-owned community center and two 18-hole golf courses.
While certain details remain unresolved, the decision marked the end of longstanding uncertainty regarding the facilities’ future. After the vote, the packed council chambers erupted in applause.
Over the past few months, council meetings about golf have driven dozens of residents to express their support for keeping the 36 holes. Most tell the council that the community center is a vital community asset and closing the courses would cause a dramatic drop in the values of homes nearby.
After previously considering a range of options that included closing some or all of the holes and converting the land to a linear park, Mayor Joe Winfield proposed the council select the 36-hole option, but laid out specific criteria for the future of golf operations.
“I think it’s important to have targets, goals that we’re working and striving for, especially in terms of the membership and rounds of play,” Winfield said, adding that he recently purchased an individual golf membership.
During a previous council meeting on Sept. 4, Winfield said if the council moves forward with the 36-hole option, then it should meet specified metrics, and if it fails to do so after two consecutive years, the town should move toward the 18-hole option.
This idea was met with pushback from other councilmembers, who felt it would just further the uncertainty of the golf courses for another two years.
“I think these goals are attainable, but if we are not attaining these metrics and measures,” Winfield said. “I think it’s only reasonable then to ask ourselves do we need to be doing something differently than what we’re doing?”
Councilmember Bill Rodman cautioned against going too deep into operational details, saying it’s up to staff for how they should reach the targets set by council.
According to Winfield’s conditions, the golf courses will have to “operate as a municipal public course,” and offer tee times on both courses instead of just one, in order to “maximize play and revenue.”
Staff will be required to 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.”
Parks and Recreation Director Kristy Diaz-Trahan will be required to coordinate with the town’s golf operator, Troon Privé, on a “business development plan” meant to grow memberships to 275 and reach 40,000 rounds of non-member play by fiscal year 2021-2022.
As of print deadline, the town has 240 golf memberships and last fiscal year saw 33,000 rounds of non-member play.
Winfield wants to see membership revenue increase 10 percent by Jan. 1, 2021. Membership rates were already set to increase by 5 percent starting on Jan. 1, 2020, but reaching that 10 percent increase may not necessarily entail another rate increase for members, according to town manager Mary Jacobs.
Staff will be required to issue a request for proposal to “obtain bids from regional or national companies experienced in managing municipal golf courses for the operation of the town golf courses.”
Those companies will propose ways to “reduce operating costs, grow rounds of play and provide for ongoing capital costs.” Troon Privé currently has a contract with the town that will expire in June 2020.
Rodman noted that Winfield’s language did not specify “new” companies, meaning Troon Privé should have an opportunity to bid as well.
“I get it, after a certain period of time we may always want to find out whether or not there’s something better or less expensive or more effective, but I don’t think it’s because they haven’t done their job because I think they really have done the job,” Rodman said.
Winfield’s conditions also require staff to negotiate with the Cañada Hills Community Association and the Villages at La Cañada Homeowners Association to decide their financial contribution to the town’s golf courses, which would begin on July 1, 2020. The Cañada Hills CA and Villages HOA had previously offered $100,000 and $25,000 annual contributions, respectively.
At the council meeting, Cañada Hills CA president Stephen Jones said he was confident he and his group could come up with the money. However, Greg Kishi, president of the Villages HOA, said they may be required to do a homeowners’ vote, which could fail.
Winfield’s next condition ended in a stalemate between some on the dais. He proposed the town perform capital improvements to the golf courses and community center on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning the town would not use its $3 million in bond capacity to have the improvements done sooner.
Councilmember Melanie Barrett defended the idea, saying it provides a necessary “check and balance” on the golf course and reinforces the perception of a municipal golf course rather than a country club competitive with similar operations.
“If we’re making our numbers, we will have enough money to do these improvements,” she said. “Yes it won’t happen overnight all right away, but within five years, 10 years, we’re going to be able to get there with all of the capital improvements that are needed.”
Rodman said the town won’t get the full value of the improvements if they’re not done right away. Piña and Solomon agreed, citing concerns over the potential for rising construction costs in the future that could make it more expensive to do the improvements later on.
“We get to realize the benefits of it when we start right away,” Piña said.
Barrett was the sole “no” vote for approving the 36 holes, because the other councilmembers took the pay-as-you-go component out of the motion. She said it was a “lynchpin” for keeping the courses.
In an uncharacteristic pivot, council member Joyce Jones-Ivey disagreed with Winfield and Barrett and expressed doubts about the pay-as-you-go plan. She sided with Rodman, Solomon and council member Rhonda Piña to have town staff analyze the options for them.
“Five years ago, pay-as-you-go might have been a good thing but I would agree with the other councilmembers, we’re now in a different place in time,” Jones-Ivey said. “Bonding might be the way to go with having our ability to take from the community fund monies to pay off that bond a lot earlier.”
The council agreed to defer the decision to staff, who are expected to evaluate funding options and give recommendations for how the town should finance the capital improvements on the golf courses and community center.
Capital improvements will begin with the community center’s restaurant, which will close and moved to the first level. The previous space will be repurposed for exercise equipment and other related uses. Then, as the town’s Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment is completed, further improvements to the facilities will be prioritized through a master plan and paid for out of the Community Center Fund.
“The 36-hole option doesn’t bother me,” said Mike Zinkin, a former Oro Valley councilmember who voted against the 2014 purchase of the community center and golf courses. “What bothers me is the fact that they removed the pay-as-you-go stipulation, and now the town is allowed to bond for capital improvements.”
Former mayor Satish Hiremath told Tucson Local Media the council’s decision is ironic because the new mayor and council members approved the same thing he was planning to do when he was in office, despite campaigning on changing course from his plans.
“[Winfield] campaigned very disingenuously and told people what they wanted to hear, just to get elected,” Hiremath said. “And now that he’s elected, he’s just basically reinforcing that what we did as a council was, in fact, correct. He validated the actual purchase, because he couldn’t find anything wrong with it to close it.”
At this point, the future of the nine holes of golf at Pusch Ridge is still undecided. The last time the council spoke about it, Rodman proposed they re-initiate discussions with HSL Properties for leasing back the isolated course, but Barrett requested the council discuss the contracts in executive session before any action is taken.
But now that the 36 holes are officially safe from closure, many of the Oro Valley residents who made calls, sent emails, wrote letters and spoke at meetings in support of the courses have found a positive outcome.
“I want to compliment the community on the way they organized and how persistent they were. I think it lets people realize that yes, you can make a difference in government,” Solomon said, addressing the audience. “In this case, I think you demonstrated that you actually changed the course of the direction that the council was initially proceeding on. So stay involved … there’s a lot more issues out there, there’s a lot more things going on in the community.”