You said it: Go with Greenway

You said it: Go with Greenway

Jane Sullwold

A vote by Council on May 15 to make Greenway Golf the long-term operator of the Chuck Corica Golf Complex is a vote for the future.

As both the national golf experts hired by the city and the city’s own leaders have recognized, ensuring that the golf complex will survive and flourish requires more than just an infrastructure fix such as the one proposed by KemperSports. Rather, a complete redesign of the Jack Clark south course is needed to sustain and increase future golf revenues and to minimize future drainage problems. And this is exactly what Greenway proposes to do.

The heart of Greenway’s proposal is to turn the Clark course – always the weakest part of the golf complex – into a links-style course by using imported fill to build fairway curves and contours. Internationally famous golf architect Rees Jones will be responsible for the design. The new Clark course will challenge better golfers yet provide a great experience for high handicappers. Sustainable and increasing revenue should follow. Moreover, Greenway’s plan will raise the level of the course by an average of three feet, which will facilitate surface runoff drainage that will permit play even right after a heavy rain. This plan also positions the golf complex to avoid drainage problems in the future.

Back in 2007 and 2008, the City hired the National Golf Foundation – at a cost of $150,000 - to study the golf complex and propose a master plan. NGF’s analysis – and its recommendations—anticipate Greenway’s proposal.

From a marketing standpoint, NGF emphasized the need to distinguish the Clark course from the Earl Fry north course. For example, in its 2008 master plan, NGF recommended that the Clark course should “offer a different experience to the north course. This diversifies the city’s asset in golf operations, allowing marketing and operation to present the south course(s) as a different golf experience.”

NGF also emphasized the need to attack the drainage problem.

“Groundwater is evident at depths as shallow as 2.5 feet,” NGF said in its 2007 operational review. “High groundwater makes it difficult to drain soils, thereby increasing the likelihood of retained salts in the soil. Retained salts contributes to poor turf growth. Conditions are exacerbated when water quality may already be high in salts and when irrigation and drainage is inadequate.”

Nor was NGF alone in seeing this issue. In an article published a few years ago by Golf Digest Magazine about the effects of global warming on golf courses, the Chuck Corica Golf Complex made the first page of the nationwide list of courses most vulnerable to rising water levels.

NGF recommended making the Clark course more marketable – and solving its drainage problem – by importing one million cubic yards of clean fill material and rebuilding the entire course. “Through the phase of importing clean fill material, the southern land will become a series of rises with flowing hills and ridges,” NGF said in its master plan. “What are now low areas collecting water unable to drain, will become swales between higher ground. Importantly, the land will drain positively to designated water features and drainage ditches.”

NGF could not have described Greenway’s current proposal better if it had had written it itself.

The forward-looking approach recommended by NGF and embraced by Greenway tracks the values espoused by at least two Council members. At its March 20 meeting, City Councilwoman Lena Tam quoted Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” She explained that we needed to pick an operator capable of adapting to changing market conditions and creating a product that will see us into the future. Mayor Marie Gilmore echoed that concern. She asked, if you go “back to the future” with the same type of course, how do you drive increased revenue?

The forward-looking approach also has been endorsed by the three members of the Golf Commission – Vice Chair Bill Schmitz, Commissioner Jeff Wood, and me – who voted to recommend Greenway for the long-term lease. As Schmitz pointed out, we have squandered too many opportunities to improve golf in Alameda. Now is our chance to do something bold: “When you get an opportunity like this, you better jump on it.”

Unfortunately, city staff chose baby steps over the long jump. In its memo prepared for the upcoming council meeting, staff recommended that the city give the long-term lease to KemperSports, the current interim manager who submitted a conservative proposal intended, in its own words, to “restore” the golf complex to its “former glory.” Interestingly, the staff report focused more on alleged flaws in Greenway’s proposal than on potential benefits of KemperSports’ plan. In any event, none of the five reasons cited by staff for its recommendation supports rejecting Greenway’s forward-looking approach.

Dirt

Staff’s major concern apparently is that Greenway’s plan will require importing too much dirt, which raises the specter of EIRs, subsequent court challenges, and complaints by the City of Oakland. But staff’s negative attitude is overblown.

First, staff asserts that Greenway will have to bring in 500 truckloads of dirt per day, or one load per minute. In fact, according to Greenway, it will bring in 18 truckloads of dirt per hour (not 60), or 180 loads per day (not 500).

Second, while the environmental impact of moving even 180 loads per day requires further study, the barrier is not insurmountable. Last year, Greenway completed a project in Florida that involved bringing in 1.2 million cubic yards of fill onto the course. Locally, the project of turning the old Lew Galbraith course into the current Metropolitan Links about ten years ago required 200 truckloads of material each day for four months, then another 350,000 cubic yards of topsoil several months later. The trucks traveled a route similar to the one outlined by Greenway, so presumably the City of Oakland can be reminded how well the process worked in the past.

Finally, Kemper’s plan may raise precisely the same environmental issues, necessitating precisely the same level of review, as Greenway’s. Kemper wants first to try to dig into the old landfill to install new irrigation and drainage on the Clark course. The potential for disturbing such possibly hazardous material surely would prompt an environmental assessment. If it proves problematic, as history suggests it will, Kemper says it may need to bring in dirt to raise the surface level over the landfill by three feet on at least six holes. That estimate may be low, but even if only six holes are involved, 267,000 cubic yards of dirt (one-third of the 800,000 yards required by Greenway’s plan for 18 holes) would be needed, which surely would be enough to trigger an EIR.

Trees

Staff suggests that Greenway’s proposal would deforest the Clark course and upset the donors of memorial trees. But Greenway’s agronomist has done a study using aerial photographs and found that, rather than the 500 memorial trees cited by staff, there are actually 380 trees on the Clark course, 240 large ones and 140 small trees and shrubs. Greenway has evaluated those 380 trees and determined that none of the large trees needs to be removed, that only 13 to 15 of the smaller trees or shrubs would be affected, and that any of those that are memorials could be transplanted successfully to nearby locations. Needless to say, even the wholesale removal of 13 to 15 small trees is unlikely to have any significant impact on bird habitat.

Money to the city

Although the city’s local consultant, David Sams, repeatedly has described Greenway’s revenue projections as “conservative,” staff speculates that revenue growth may flatten or decline once the newness of the Clark course wears off.No one can know for certain. But surely Greenway, which actually operates golf courses, is better qualified to predict future revenues than the unidentified staff prognosticator. If anything, Greenway has an incentive to avoid inflating its projections because it is relying on the revenues to repay construction costs. Not to mention, Greenway doesn’t want to be accused of misrepresentations by its investment partners.

“Bench strength”

Staff expresses concern about Greenway’s ability to perform if its CEO, George Kelley, retires or is no longer involved with the company. But Greenway is not a one-man show. Kelley has two partners who work with him (and thus have a personal stake in Greenway’s success). In addition, Greenway’s staff includes a regional operations manager, a regional agronomist, a regional golf shop specialist, and a regional marketing director as well as accounting and human resources personnel. Most of Greenway’s principals and managers are based in California, ready to respond quickly to any problem that might arise in Alameda. KemperSports, by contrast, is headquartered in Chicago, and the experience of the last three and a half four years has shown that all material decisions are made in the corporate front office.

Overall financial position

Staff acknowledges that Greenway, like KemperSports, has demonstrated satisfactorily its financial ability to complete the project. Nevertheless, staff suggests that KemperSports is more financially reliable than Greenway simply because KemperSports is a corporation. Tell that to the creditors of Lehman Brothers. In fact, the willingness of wealthy, sophisticated people to put their money into a partnership formed by Greenway to implement its plan rather than into other investments should be reassuring, not troubling.

Greenway has offered a vision for the future of sustainable golf in Alameda by creating a new golf experience that is exciting and environmentally sound. KemperSports, consistent with its caretaker approach to interim management, has proposed a plan that will, at most, give us a somewhat better version of what we currently have. Let’s move forward rather than staying in the same place. Council should endorse a vision for the future of golf in Alameda by directing the City Manager to negotiate a long-term lease with Greenway Golf.

Comments

Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Fri, May 11, 2012

I agree with Jane and support Greenway. After attending the recent Golf Commission meeting Greenway's proposal is the best long-term and most comprehensive solution.