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More facts needed on golf course

COLUMN BY JUD SHELL, Brewton Resident

Many Brewton residents were shocked last Wednesday to read on the front page of The Brewton Standard that the city would be summarily shutting down the public golf course at Dogwood Hills following a city council vote on Mon., Feb. 27.

This abrupt action seemingly came out of nowhere, catching many off guard and raising questions about the handling of the matter.

In a cordial meeting I had with Mayor Yank Lovelace on Monday, he conceded that perhaps he should have done a better job of keeping the public informed.

About a decade ago, there was a proposal to downsize the venerable old course, a fixture in this community for almost 80 years.

In that instance, the community was notified many weeks in advance of the impending vote, allowing for vigorous public discourse on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, a petition in favor of the course was signed by hundreds upon hundreds of concerned citizens, golfers and non-golfers alike.

Then-mayor Ted Jennings and his city council listened and responded accordingly. This time no advance notification took place, as the current administration pushed the vote through without engaging the public.

Among those surprised by the vote was Brewton’s own Director of Parks and Recreation, who because of a scheduling conflict was not even in attendance as is common practice.

Also left in the dark until after the fact was Ron Reeves, Dogwood Hills Men’s Golf Association president. He has now secured a place on the agenda for the next city council meeting, and encourages all interested persons to gather at city hall before 4:30 pm on Monday, March 13.

Councilwoman Carrie Brown voted against the closure. In no small part she said because of the way the matter was handled. She stated council members were notified by e-mail that Dogwood Hills would be on the agenda only three days before the Monday meeting.

With only a 72-hour window until the meeting, she said she had no options other than to reach out to her constituency through Facebook. Of the few citizens who were aware of the issue and attended the council meeting the night of the vote, most were non-golfers from her district concerned with how a closure might impact their property values.   

Video of the Feb. 27 council meeting is available on YouTube and on the city’s website. All concerned are encouraged to view it. Approximately seven minutes into the meeting, Lovelace presented an eight-minute monologue on alternate uses for the golf course property, its fate apparently a foregone conclusion.

At the 15-minute mark, the vote was conducted with no further discussion, no presentation of hard data concerning the course’s finances, no public input, and only the mayor’s estimations that  $200,000 could be saved annually because only 17 Brewton residents regularly use the course with a smattering of others and some out-of-towners.

Councilwoman Brown, for one, was not convinced by the mayor’s financial arguments. She said they appeared to be drawn from an audit, conducted more than four years ago in 2012; however, of this she could not be certain, because she had not even been granted an opportunity to study that dated document.

Mr. Reeves also thinks the numbers are suspect. The biggest part of Dogwood Hills’ budget is employee salaries, but there will be little savings there because all five full-time employees are being retained (four are primarily responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all of the city’s parks.)

Per the mayor’s figures, if the course is generating $100,000 in revenue annually and $200,000 can be saved by its closure, simple math tells us the city is spending $300,000 per year on course expenses not including salaries. That comes out to a whopping $822 per day!

While there are expenses beyond basic course maintenance such as the lease of golf carts, Reeves said he is incredulous at the notion that a nine-hole course of such modest size (approximately 90 acres, about half being fairways and greens) costs $500,000 to operate annually.

Furthermore, Reeves said he found the estimate on player usage laughable, given his presence at the facility multiple days each week and the fact that some 5,600 rounds were played there last year. While usage is down from its heyday, 5,600 rounds is no small number.

Consideration should also be given to the fact that the economy is clearly rebounding from the Great Recession, and the course closure comes as Brewton enjoys an early spring signaling that prime golf season is here.

No reasonable person would elevate the city’s responsibility for parks and recreation to the same level as the police, fire department, water service or other critical functions. Neither would a reasonable person expect the city to absorb massive financial losses on the golf course, which have been implied.

However, most reasonable people would agree that in a democracy there should be transparency in governance.

Given the absence of up-to-date, accurate facts concerning the fiscal operations of Dogwood Hills and the opportunity for public review of the same, how can the powers-that-be justify shutting it down in such a fashion? In deed, how could any sound decision be reached under these circumstances?