Once unable to pay its debts, Cobb’s Cobblestone Golf Course is now repaying its multi-million tab to taxpayers and is an example of how government can make public golf courses work, officials say.
About two years ago Cobb, like other metro cities and counties, wanted out of the golf business. The county was cash-strapped because of declining home values and the course was generating less money because fewer rounds were being played. Cobblestone had a $2.13 million bond debt and had to borrow money from the county’s general fund to pay a portion of the debt, resulting in an additional $1.9 million owed to the county.
But the county couldn’t sell the Acworth course because it was built on 910 acres of land and water leased from the Army Corps of Engineers. And privatizing the course would make it tougher for the county to recoup the millions owed by Cobblestone. So, Cobb opted to invest in Cobblestone, paying off the bond debt, upgrading the greens and giving Cobblestone’s private management more control over operations.
“Sometimes you have to look at doing business the normal county way and sometimes you have to look at other ways to do things,” said Eddie Canon, director of parks for Cobb County. “This turned out to be a better way for Cobb County, but its also a way other courses could look at for future.”
Over the last couple of years, several metro counties and cities looked into selling public golf courses with no success. At the same time, taxpayer advocates have held firm the belief governments have no place owing or operating golf courses.
In August 2010, Gwinnett County found itself back in the golf game a decade after selling its 18-hole Collins Hill Golf Club to a special public agency created to take over the course. That agency couldn’t pay for the course or pay its loans, so the county took over the course again, along with $1.8 million in debt.
In 2011, Gwinnett awarded a bid to a private golf management firm to run Collins Hill and keep up with improvements for $6,365 per month. The course saw a spike in rounds from 23,790 in 2011 to 27,420 in 2012, but unlike some other counties, Gwinnett doesn’t keep any of the revenue from the Collins Hill course.
The city of Canton in Cherokee County tried to sell its Fairways of Canton golf course in 2010 but received only one unacceptable bid. The city now leases the course, which has undergone a number of improvements, said Mayor Gene Hobgood.
In 2010, Cobb spent $615,000 to upgrade Cobblestone’s greens, bunkers and tee boxes. That helped spur an increase in the number of rounds played from 40,385 in 2011 to 45,311 in 2012. The National Golf Foundation estimates around the same time, the number of golf rounds played in the U.S. declined from 475 million in 2010 to 463.1 million in 2011, the most current year available.
The county signed a 10-year contract with Affiniti, agreeing to pay $5,000 a month management fee, plus the salaries of workers. It also agreed to give Affiniti, an established Alpharetta-based management company, more freedom over purchasing and budgeting practices in order to make operations more efficient.
Jim Rhoden is chairman of Futren Corporation, which manages east Cobb’s private Indian Hills Country Club. He also reviewed Cobblestone’s operations as a member of the citizens oversight committee and had concerns about the amount the course was costing the county. Under the new structure, he says he has no criticisms about the Cobb’s involvement in the golf business.
“As long as it’s not a drain and they keep enough cash flow (to invest in the course), I have no criticism about where it is today,” he said.
Cobblestone still owes about $3.7 million to the county’s general fund. In 2012, the course brought in about $1.9 million in revenue, enough to cover the course’s $1.4 million in expenses. The county plans to earmark a portion of the revenue each year to repay the debt.
But despite the course’s new structure, some residents, like Lance Lamberton, president of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, believe golf isn’t an essential government service and shouldn’t be on the county books. Lamberton said the county should keep Cobblestone long enough to recoup the money owed to taxpayers and then privatize the course.
“It’s one thing to go to private investors and ask them to take the risk. But posing that risk on taxpayers for what is a commercial entertainment enterprise, that is inappropriate,” he said.
County/city-owned golf courses
Bobby Jones Golf Course, 384 Woodward Way, NW, 404-355-1009
Browns Mill Golf Course, 2420 Browns Mill Rd, SE, 404-366-3573
North Fulton Golf Course, 216 W. Wieuca Rd, NW, 404-255-0723
Tup Holmes Golf Course, 2300 Wilson Dr. SW, 404-753-6158
Candler Park Golf Course, 585 Candler Park Dr. NE, 404-371-1260
John A. White Golf Course, 1053 Cascade Cir SW, 404-756-1868
Cobblestone Golf Course, 4200 Nance Road, Acworth, 770-917-5151
Legacy Links, 1825 Windy Hill Rd., Smyrna, 770-434-6331
The City Club of Marietta, 10 Powder Springs St SE, Marietta, 770-528-4653
Mystery Valley, 6094 Shadowrock Drive, Lithonia, 770-469-6913
Sugar Creek, 2706 Bouldercrest Rd., Atlanta, 404-241-7671
Collins Hill Golf Club, 585 Camp Perrin Road, Lawrenceville, 770-822-5400
Source: Various county/city websites.