Article by Ed Quillen
Salida Golf Course – November 1995 – Colorado Central Magazin
In this municipal election, Salidans will vote on two questions related to expanding the municipal golf course from nine to eighteen holes: 1) Can the city sell 4.6 acres and use the proceeds for golf-course expansion? and 2) Can the golf course be used as collateral for a loan of up to $1.4 million to build nine more holes?
The questions are “related,” rather than “decisive.” Even if they pass, the Colorado Wildlife Commission could stop the project. If they lose, expansion might proceed anyway, providing the Wildlife Commission approves a land swap and the Salida Golf Club arranges other financing.
If you’re not confused yet, bear with me. It doesn’t get simpler.
The current nine-hole course is owned by the city; the Salida Golf Club leases it for a nominal fee, and administers it. The Golf Club is a non-profit corporation; members are the approximately 250 people who purchase season passes.
The Golf Club pays for seeding, mowing, routine maintenance, etc. The city provides major work like repaving the parking lot or replacing the clubhouse roof. “There’s very little out-of-pocket cost for this,” explained Pat Brooks, city administrator.
The city provides untreated water to the course at no charge. “Salida doesn’t have a water-supply problem,” Brooks said, “but it has a shortage of treatment capacity. What they do or don’t do at the golf course has no effect on water pressure in town.”
Golf Club membership ($250 for an individual, with breaks for families and juniors) entitles the member to unlimited play for a year. The only additional charge is a $1 a round course maintenance fee.
Non-members now pay $11 for nine holes or $19 for eighteen holes. Those are “greens fees.”
The land swap
Negotiations started years ago when the Salida Golf Club asked the city to see about acquiring land north of the current course for expansion.
The club had looked into other sites. The logical place, undeveloped land just west of the course, was divided among many owners and would cost too much. Other sites were not nearby, which meant building eighteen new holes, rather than just adding nine. That cost too much, too.
The city owns a 48-acre parcel west of Franzhurst Lake. This land, which has some gravel pits and a shooting range, would be traded to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The city would get a 51-acre parcel from DOW. It lies just north of the current nine holes; this could become the back nine.
The two parcels, according to an appraiser, are of comparable value; the 51-acre DOW land is worth about $20,000 more.
That’s the “land swap” at the heart of the expansion question, and it’s not on the ballot.
Water is also involved. DOW has water-rights problems with the supply to the Mt. Shavano and Mt. Ouray hatcheries. Water evaporates from Franzhurst Lake, and stricter accounting is now required on the Arkansas after a Kansas victory in a lawsuit over water deliveries from Colorado.
DOW thus needs water to put into the river to cover evaporation losses. Salida owns water in the Briscoe Ditch that it isn’t using, and about 25 acre-feet a year would go to DOW in the land trade.
Brooks said this is an essentially an accounting measure that would not affect the city’s water supply.
It looks like a good deal for the city. In return for 48 acres with a gravel pit that might require expensive mined-land reclamation, and for water that it doesn’t use, the city gets 51 acres.
DOW has placed restrictions on use of that land: no water lines, other than for irrigation, no sewer lines, no permanent structures, etc. The land could become the back nine, or it might remain as a horse pasture and hay meadow.
The decision about the swap will come from the Colorado Wildlife Commission, probably at its January meeting.
From the wildlife perspective, the trade is either a betrayal of DOW priorities, or it’s a smart deal that protects DOW resources.
In the latter case, DOW needs water rights to continue running trout hatcheries. It has no money to buy water. Here’s a way to get the water without spending money.
The 51 acres DOW now owns will remain open space, and DOW will get 48 acres that could provide habitat, fishing ponds, river access, etc.
DOW started with 48 acres of habitat and a need for water. After the swap, there are 99 acres of open space, along with the water, all without spending money.
Now for the other side. DOW policy statewide places top priority on protecting habitat as the best way to protect wildlife.
The 51 acres did that — there are inventories which show a deer herd (not that we need more deer, but they’re along Highway 291, thus fitting another DOW program, Watchable Wildlife), raptors like hawks and eagles, and many other critters.
A golf course can have wildlife, but it’s different. The species must be tolerant of humans. From this perspective, losing the rather lush 51 acres to the city is losing good habitat, right on the edge of town where it is important to maintain wildlife migration corridors.
What does DOW get? Forty-eight barren acres of “virtual wasteland” and “wildlife desert.” Why would DOW abandon its habitat priority?
Good question. District wildlife managers wrote in 1991 that the swap “flies in the face of everything that the Division of Wildlife stands for.”
But they weren’t in charge of the parcel. Its administration had been moved to the hatchery. Eddie Kochman works in Denver as state wildlife manager for the DOW aquatic section, and in 1993 he wrote this to the city:
“I am requesting that the city deal directly with Mel Rose on this proposal… Also, it will be very important to involve Tom Eve in all discussions, since the Wildlife Commission will make the final decision…”
Mel Rose, the hatchery supervisor, belongs to Salida Golf Club while he represents DOW in its dealings with the city to acquire DOW land for Salida Golf Club.
Tom Eve of Salida was a Chaffee County commissioner then, when he also sat on the Colorado Wildlife Commission. He doesn’t appear on the Club membership roster, but he does have a subdivision, Ute Heights, which offers lots with view of either a pasture or the new back nine — and golf-view lots often fetch a higher price.
If voters consent, the city could sell a 4.6-acre triangle next to the current nine and use the money for course expansion.
Advocates say the land was donated in 1926 specifically for the golf course, and since it won’t fit into the layout, selling it to finance expansion is reasonable.
The land’s story is more complicated than that. According to Mary Ann Bavaria, who researches local land transfers, most of the current course was offered at a tax sale in 1927. No one bid, so the land went to the county. In 1933, Salida Golf Club Inc. acquired it for $54.26 in back taxes. It was deeded to the city on April 30, 1941, but Mary Ann found no stipulation on record that the land be used only for golf.
Even so, if we must add homesites, then develop them within the city, rather than on five-acre ranchettes farther out. This triangle should bring about $150,000 for course expansion. How much more will it take?
The Salida Golf Club is asking for authority to borrow up to $1.4 million, secured by golf-course land.
Bob Rush, local attorney and golfer, predicts the actual cost will be about $700,000. Steve Chelf, former club pro, said it might be as low as $450,000. That’s a considerable variance, and it grows if you ask around.
Andy Johnson is a golf-course architect in Vail who has been working on plans to expand Leadville’s nine-hole course. He said that course development — dirt work, bunkers, cart paths, sprinklers — runs about $100,000 a hole, which makes $900,000.
Bob Wilshire, who works a golf construction company in Colorado Springs, agreed that the going rate is about $100,000 a hole or $1 million for nine holes.
If the cost is $900,000, and they get $150,000 from selling the triangle, then there’s $750,000, which could be close enough to the $700,000 we keep hearing. If course members donated some bulldozer time for major dirt work, perhaps it could be the $450,000 that Chelf announced.
But if they’re so sure the job could be done for $700,000 or less, why are they asking for authority to borrow twice that much? That’s a lot of contingency.
Contrast that vagueness to the Salida Regional Library’s precision as it asks for money in the same election. The library wants to increase its debt to $580,000 at 7.65 percent for 20 years. We know exactly how much would be borrowed and what it would buy.
We don’t know that about the golf-course expansion. We keep hearing that a consultant’s study will explain all this. The study was due in August, and as of October 9, it had not appeared in Salida. All we have to go by are estimates that run from $450,000 to perhaps $1.4 million.
Granted, there will be imprecision with estimates. But the amount of variance here is troubling, from $450,000 to $1 million or more.
Without better cost estimates, figuring the rest gets tricky. Assume that expansion costs $850,000, with $150,000 coming from the triangle. That leaves $700,000 to finance.
A 15-year note at 7.5% requires annual payments of about $80,000. Annual operating costs, according to a 1992 study, would rise 315% after expansion. The Golf Club now spends about $130,000, so that would rise to $410,000. Add the $80,000 loan payment, and the course must bring in $490,000 a year.
It currently brings in about $160,000 a year. So there’s a $330,000 annual gap.
Memberships now bring in about $60,000. If the annual fee rose from $250 to $325, and everybody stayed aboard, about $80,000 a year would come in, an increase of $20,000. We’re down to $310,000.
Greens fees also bring in about $60,000. Raise the fee from $19 to $23, and the current clientele would produce $73,000, for $13,000 more. We’re down to $297,000 to raise from new sources.
Figure about $41 a round from the new golfers — $23 for green fee, and the rest from cart rental, concessions, etc. The $297,000 divided by $41 means 7,250 more rounds.
The course now hosts about 17,000 rounds a year, so this would raise usage by 43% If golfers say it’s crowded now and they have to wait for tee times, would that increased traffic be any blessing?
The 18-hole factor
Can those new rounds come from tourists?
That’s where the “eighteen-hole factor” enters. Five years ago, Alamosa expanded its Cattails municipal course, which operates pretty much like Salida’s. I stopped there to see Lee Maiden, the club pro.
As tourist attractions, nine-hole courses aren’t. “A couple on vacation might play the local nine while the kids are on a raft trip,” Maiden said. “But people won’t come just to play a nine-hole course. They will make a special trip — stay in your motels, eat in your restaurants — to play an eighteen.”
Not being a golfer, I wondered if this was snobbery — touring country-clubbers too pretentious to rub shoulders with local mechanics at the municipal nine.
“I don’t see it that way,” Maiden said. “Golf is fundamentally an eighteen-hole game. So if you’re serious about it, you play an eighteen-hole course. Going around a nine twice isn’t the same.”
To attract golfers to pay for his eighteen holes, Maiden must promote. He’s got three billboards along highways into town. He also works with motels and restaurants to create golf-lodging-breakfast packages that start at $50 a night, which are advertised in regional golf publications.
Maiden saw marketing opportunities in Salida. “About 70 percent of golfers are skiers and vice-versa. You’re a lot closer to Monarch than we are to Wolf Creek, so you could have golf-ski packages in March and April.”
It’s easy to see why he believes that golf-course expansion is a benefit to a community. But when I showed him a map, Maiden paused. “I don’t see how 51 acres could be enough. It should be 70 or 80 acres for a good course.”
Alamosa’s expansion has paid its bills, he said, although income runs behind projections. “We thought ’95 would show a good jump, but then we had the flooding last summer. For several weeks of our peak season, the course was under water.”
To move on, “the two things you should look at on an expansion are a business plan and your marketing.”
The business plan may be contained in the consultants’ report which has yet to appear, and I haven’t seen any marketing plan. Meanwhile some Salidans may wonder how much more marketing the town needs before it turns into a total tourist trap.
Golf is a growing sport, and much of the growth comes from retirees and outdoor-minded Baby Boomers — Salida populations that are also growing.
There could be enough local demand to support the expansion without extensive marketing for tourists. If there is, though, it isn’t apparent now.
Salida golf course usage increased steadily from 12,000 rounds in 1985 to 23,351 rounds in 1992. But in ’93 it dropped to 17,500 rounds, and in ’94 to 17,204.
“I suspect this year will be about the same,” club pro Lori Mitchell said, “on account of the winter that came late and stayed long. The bad June cost us golf days.” On some peak days, the course is crowded and people do have to wait, Mitchell said.
But it’s not a major problem at the moment. It’s more like a church being crowded on Easter, with ample capacity on the other 51 Sundays.
It’s worth considering, but it’s not pressing.
Critics paint a gloomy picture if the expanded course can’t cover its costs.
Assume the course misses its payments. City residents might pick up the slack with a tax increase, but let’s assume they don’t. The note-holder forecloses.
The back nine comes with restrictions so that it cannot be developed. The front nine, though, would also belong to the note-holder. He might operate it as a golf course. Fees would likely rise and locals might be priced out.
Or he might try development: 75 acres in an attractive neighborhood, for 300 lots at $20,000 apiece. That’s $6 million against development costs of $3 million.
Not a bad return, but Pat Brooks, our city administrator, notes that the city would retain zoning power over any such development. Critics say that thwarting a note-holder’s attempt to recover his investment would invite lawsuits.
But collapse followed by development would not happen overnight. There would be time to work something out. It’s not something to lose sleep over.
The real issue is that expansion means Salida needs more golfers to pay the bills. Are they already here, or likely to come anyway? Or do we have to compete against Vail and Santa F to attract high-roller resort-minded golfing tourists?
My feelings about golf are colored by my upbringing — poor and Baptist. To us, golf was an affectation of the decadent who cavorted at country clubs while us decent God-fearing folks had to work by the sweat of our brows.
Golf magazines do not change that perception. Here’s a world-class development where you can buy a $500,000 lot for your 7,500-square-foot trophy home so that you can pay a $40,000 initiation fee to an exclusive club with monthly dues of $500 and a $100 greens fee.
Another ad asks “Why would you carry off-the-rack golf clubs made for the average guy?” Among the popular American sports and recreations, golf ranks third in household income among its participants.
We’re supposed to support an expansion of this elite activity in Salida? What next? Tax-supported polo fields for the gentry — assuming they don’t get a federal subsidy from money that used to go to the Earned Income Credit?
But if you’re serious about fighting a class war, the sport with the highest household income is downhill skiing. Has anybody here ever opposed Monarch’s operation because we’re using public land to support a sport for the elite?
Municipal courses are not exclusive resorts or country clubs. You can find local gentry among the members, but you also see electricians, ranchers, carpenters, bartenders, mechanics, artists, ski instructors, secretaries — a fairly broad range of society.
Lori Mitchell, the club pro, likes it that way. Of the thousands of club pros in the United States, only 91 are women, which speaks well for Salida.
“I used to work at the Denver Country Club,” she said, “and I couldn’t wait to get back to a municipal course. I think golf is a great sport for everybody, and I hate that elitist image. It hurts the sport.”
She works to develop junior golfing programs, to encourage more women in golf (much of the sport’s growth comes from women), and to provide affordable golf at convenient times for working people (such as the $7 twilight special in the summer).
After talking to Lori, who grew up here and worked her way back, I decided golf is not an exclusive preserve of People of Money. At the least, she works to keep it from becoming that.
Here’s something to ponder. Suppose the expansion falters. A private party installs an eighteen-hole course near Salida, as part of an exclusive real-estate or resort development. Salida’s upscale golfers transfer their affiliations.
The public course will lose their membership fees and political support. Fees would rise, pricing out more people.
Refusal to invest in an improved golf course thus might also qualify as class warfare. It could eliminate the lower and middle classes from activities they could once afford and enjoy.
My prejudices want me to rail against golf as a playground for the idle rich, subsidized by us working stiffs. But try as I might, I can’t make a good class-warfare argument against expansion.
How green are the greens?
When I started working on this article, I figured the golf clubhouse was a place where I’d feel about as comfortable as Spike Lee at a Klan rally. But I was greeted by Jim Luchetta, who’s in charge of maintaining the grounds.
Jim knew my weakness and had a six-pack of Negra Modelo. If I’m going to be bribed, that’s a good way to start. He also threatened not to invite me to his annual winter tamale party if I didn’t support expansion.
“That’s fighting dirty, Jim,” I countered.
“But I’m in favor of expansion, because I’ve finally got a steady job again.”
Like Lori Mitchell, Jim is a local product. He had put in seventeen years, and he was the union steward, when the Monarch Quarry closed in the early 80s.
“For a while I sold hot dogs,” he recalls. “I did just about anything to get by here — you know how it was in those days. Hell, I was even a blues guitarist for a while. How much lower can you get?”
Jim was proud that he’d just persuaded the Golf Club to provide health insurance to grounds employees.
As for the course they maintain, note that golf was invented in Scotland, where it rains about 90 inches a year. Transplanting it to a region where 18 inches is a wet year means that no golf course hereabouts will be “natural.” (Neither is an irrigated pasture very “natural.” This is a desert.)
Golf courses have earned a terrible environmental reputation. They consume lots of scarce water, along with chemical fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides for the manicured greens and verdant fairways. These toxins run off and seep down into the water table, fouling streams and wells.
On that account, golf courses are closely regulated now, and Jim lives “about a block from the golf course, and I sure don’t want to poison the place.”
His only herbicide spraying is once a year, and it’s aimed at dandelions. “It’s not as strong as the stuff people buy at Wal-Mart and put in their own yards,” he says, “and we apply it much more carefully.”
No other herbicides, and no pesticides. Fertilizer is the common Scott stuff, “with slow-release nitrogen so we don’t get run-off that causes algae bloom in streams.”
As for the roughs, “we quit mowing them after I took over. I want native spear grass, which doesn’t take mowing well. Golfers complain about losing balls in our roughs, but this is the right way, and they get used to it.”
He tries to persuade sagebrush to grow in the roughs. “Whenever I find one, it gets protected. I’ve tried every way I know to get sagebrush to grow. I’ve planted seeds, I’ve transplanted, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”
He took me across the road to look at the proposed expansion area.
“We’ve got more wildlife variety on the course — deer, ducks, turtles, geese, gophers — than there is on that pasture now,” he says. “I think we’d provide more of a variety of habitat, if that land were a golf course, than there is now.”
He’s probably right, in that respect. The current golf course provides a diversity — roughs of native grasses, trees, ponds — that I didn’t see in the pasture. But as others have pointed out, the species on the pasture are a different mix — less tolerant of humans, and perhaps more in need of protected habitat — than on a golf course.
In legal and financial terms, the major environmental consideration is not wildlife habitat, but about 11 acres of wetlands in the middle of the pasture. Federal regulations say that if you alter a wetlands, you’ve got to provide a replacement and a mitigation plan.
That can be complicated and expensive, and until the Golf Club comes up with specific plans, we have no way to judge wetlands protection.
Anyway, as long as Jim’s in charge, I feel pretty confident that the back nine would be maintained in an environmentally conscious manner.
My problem with supporting expansion, or at least not opposing it, is what I don’t hear from its public advocates. Less than a month before the election, they hadn’t produced their consultants’ study — the business plan that the Alamosa pro says we should see.
They haven’t told us whether it will be necessary to market Salida as a golf destination, and if so, how they will conduct this marketing.
They haven’t told us how much it will cost, and there are good reasons to wonder whether 51 acres is adequate for eighteen holes — especially when there are 11 acres of protected wetland inside those 51 acres.
Their attitude seems to be “We’re important people in town, and you can trust us.”
Well, as Ronald Reagan said, “trust but verify.” But whenever I try to verify, I run into more questions.
Expansion supporters have not done their homework. Compare their vagaries to the specifics from the library, which also seeks expansion money, and you see what I mean.
What’s the hurry, anyway? The course isn’t suffering from overcrowding at the moment, and the 51 acres will not evaporate.
Wait a year, and we’d have the business and marketing plans, as well as solid numbers for construction costs. We would know what we were buying into if the election were held in 1996, rather than 1995.
We could make an informed decision next year. Granted, no city election is scheduled. But the cost of a special election is a small price for being able to cast an informed ballot, based on reasonable estimates of what it would cost and how it might affect our community.
So I will vote against expansion. I hope it fails this year, and that the defeat forces the golf club’s leadership to treat the voting public with respect.
They could provide solid information and reasonable estimates. They would have to make a case for expansion, rather than just tell us it’s a “no-brainer.”
If their numbers add up, I’d vote for an expansion next year. But not now, when we don’t know whether it will cost $450,000, $700,000, or $1 million.
Ed Quillen drove a golf cart for the first time in his life when he was researching this story.