A historic Donald Ross muni has become ‘deplorable,’ and now this North Carolina city says operator is $324K behind on payments

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. —  A 10-year lease agreement with Pope Golf, the company responsible for daily operations and maintenance of the historic Asheville Municipal Golf Course, has resulted in steadily degrading course conditions and $324,934 in outstanding lease payments to the city, according to public records obtained by the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network.

A June 29 letter from the city attorney’s office to Keith Pope, CEO of Pope Golf, based in Sarasota, Florida, advised that the city intended to initiate litigation over the past due lease payments, some of which have been accumulating since 2016.

Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, said Aug. 25 the legal department is in communication with Pope’s attorney, and no lawsuit has yet been filed.

More: Asheville Muni Golf Course in its ‘most deplorable condition ever?’

He hopes the issue will be resolved out of court.

“I would say we are working collaboratively to resolve the situation and to find the right solution between us and Pope Golf for past due payments,” Corl said.

Pope did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The city’s management and lease agreement with Pope Golf began Oct. 1, 2012, and expires Sept. 30.

“I would say it was mutual to not extend with them,” Corl told the Citizen Times.

Asheville City Council has already approved a license and management agreement with a new operator, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC, which will begin Oct. 1.

For the past 10 years, the responsibility of maintenance, improvements and general upkeep of the course fell to Pope Golf.

The first public golf course in North Carolina and the first to be integrated in the Southeast, the Asheville Municipal Golf Course is the last remaining affordable public fee course in Asheville, said Corl.

The 18-hole golf course was designed by Hall of Fame golf architect Donald Ross and opened for play in 1927. It is home to the longest-running Black-owned and operated professional tournament in the country.

While Corl said Pope Golf made some improvements since 2012, “there are also a great number of areas that have declined since they took over.”

He acknowledged the course is in “poor condition,” with infrastructure needs that range from stormwater repairs, tee box upgrades and green and sand improvements.

The city is embarking on an about $2.5 million project to initiate these capital improvements and is seeking grant funding from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, along with other sources.

In its fiscal year 2023 capital improvement plan, the city budgeted $1.1 million for improvements to the course.

Under Pope Golf’s lease agreement, the company was tasked with providing the city a capital project schedule and budget.

Corl said this was intended to happen annually, “but they have never submitted a capital improvement plan to us, so therefore no capital improvements have happened in that time.”

For regular golfers at the course, the condition has become “deplorable,” according to one Citizen Times reader, strong language that Lonnie Gilliam, 83, who has been golfing at the course since 1966, was quick to back up.

“The conditions out there are terrible,” Gilliam said. Having seen the course at its “heyday,” and competed in the Skyview Golf Tournament for years, he said it’s the worst condition the course has ever been in.

Gilliam said he golfs at the course almost five days a week.

“For whatever reason, once Pope took over, nothing has been done,” Gilliam said. He described an abysmal scene — sand traps with no sand, an overgrown green, sinkholes caused by an antiquated drainage system, soil erosion and broken cart paths.

“It nosedived. They didn’t do anything except collect the money and cut the grass.”

Gilliam said he and other golfers were “elated” to discover Pope Golf would not re-up its contract.

$324,934 in past due lease payments?

According to an invoice obtained by the Citizen Times, the first underpayment was in 2016.

Payments are due to the city quarterly. Per the lease agreement, for the first three years, Pope Golf paid the city $72,000 annually.

After the initial three years, this flat fee was to be recalculated as 10% of the average adjusted gross revenues earned in the first three years, according to the lease agreement. This came to $84,593 annually, Corl said.

But Pope Golf never paid the additional $12,593 per year. These payments, which amounted to $3,148 annually, were listed on the invoice as “unbilled amount(s).”

Corl said the city was not charging the additional $3,148 per quarter until the first invoice of 2022, “but the rental formula in the lease they signed was clear that they were responsible for the additional amount, and therefore we retroactively billed for all applicable quarters prior.”

Until 2019, Pope Golf continued to pay $72,000 annually, but as of June 2019, Pope Golf stopped paying any of the lease amount, altogether.

According to the city’s demand letter, if a lawsuit were to be pursued, Senior Assistant City Attorney Eric Edgerton told Pope Golf the city would seek “trebled damages” of $974,802, in addition to the cost of litigation.

“The City further understands from statements you have made to its employees that (Pope Golf Asheville) has in all likelihood deliberately depleted its assets with the goal of rendering it judgment proof,” the letter said.

Corl said the nonpayment was due to ongoing discussions and disputes surrounding stormwater improvements and capital costs, and whose responsibility it was to foot the bill.

He said he could not speak to much more of the background, as until Jan. 1, 2022, the Municipal Golf Course fell under Asheville Parks and Recreation’s management. Only at the beginning of this year did Corl’s department, Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, take over management of the course.

Despite nonpayment, Corl said “eviction” of Pope Golf was not a good option without a set plan if the city intended to continue operating the course.

Without proper care, he said a green can die in less than three weeks. The city chose to continue working with Pope in the hopes of resolving the issue.

“It was never an oil/water situation. They are still operating the course on our behalf; we’re still trying to have that course open to the general public,” Corl said.

“We still have very affordable golf out there, so it’s good to keep the course open and try to work with them on the backside to try to figure out a solution.”

‘New life’

Despite challenges at the course — which prior to Pope Golf taking over operation in 2012 lost $539,000 in four years, according to prior reporting from the Citizen Times — it is an essential piece of Asheville history, Corl said.

“It’s everything that I think people think golf should be,” Corl said.

“There’s a lot of good happening there that people don’t realize can happen with golf because of the stigma that golf has had for decades as being a sport for rich, white people. It’s not that at Muni.”

He was excited for the city to begin its work with Commonwealth Golf Partners.

Corl said this will be a new model of management. Rather than a lease agreement, like the one the city had with Pope Golf, Asheville City Council approved on Aug. 23 a licensing and management/operations agreement.

Though it holds more financial risk for the city, it allows the city to dictate maintenance levels for the course and retain control of maximum allowable green fee and passholder rates, according to a staff report on the operator agreement.

In the case of a quarterly loss, the city will be responsible for 65% of losses, and Commonwealth responsible for 35%.

In the case of a quarterly profit, Commonwealth will earn 100% of the first $5,000 and then 55% of remaining earnings, while the city takes 45% of all earnings after the first $5,000.

Commonwealth will manage and execute capital projects on behalf of the city.

“It opens up a new door, creates new life,” Corl said of the new operator.

“And when you’re thinking about people … who are there on the regular, speak fondly of the course, but know what it’s current status is, a change in management is a really, really good start to invigorate people to make them realize, ‘Hey, we’re actually doing something.’”

A community meeting with the new operators will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Community Center.

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.

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