Whispering Pines on chopping block at next Myrtle Beach City Council meeting

ablondin@thesunnews.comJanuary 15, 2014 

The demise of Whispering Pines Golf Club could be coming sooner than later.

At the request of city councilwoman Susan Grissom Means, a motion to close the course will be on the agenda at Myrtle Beach City Council’s next scheduled meeting at 2 p.m. on Jan. 28.

A date of closing is not included in the motion, but likely will be discussed during the meeting and a 9 a.m. council workshop that will precede it.

The golf course was a discussion item during the City Council’s workshop Tuesday, where assistant city manager Ron Andrews said the course has lost an average of approximately $250,000 annually over the past four years.

“I’m not saying close the doors in two weeks, but make the decision to close it at some point,” Means said. “I’m just asking to have it on the agenda and we can vote it up or vote it down. I don’t want to see us throw away another six months of money. It’s stupid and it’s bad.”

The 6,700-yard course, which first opened for play in 1962, is the only city- or government-owned course among approximately 100 on the Grand Strand.

Andrews doesn’t foresee the course closing in the immediate aftermath of the meeting. “I’m not sure closing it immediately would be something they would do,” Andrews said. “I think there should be some consideration for the employees.”

In the case of a vote to shut Whispering Pines down, Andrews is working to prepare a master plan for redeveloping the course’s 200 acres that he’ll present to City Council on the 28th. He intends to create recreation pods within the property that may include various athletic fields and courts for sports such as soccer, baseball, tennis and basketball; a park; a cross country running trail; and a special events area for activities such as car shows, festivals, etc.

He warns that closing the course will still incur costs for upkeep of the property, and any planned development will be costly.

“We can certainly come up with a plan, but it will cost a lot of money to develop 200 acres of land,” said Andrews, who noted Grand Park near The Market Common cost $24 million.

City staff proposed last month to shorten the Whispering Pines layout into an executive course consisting only of par-3 and par-4 holes and eliminating longer par-5s, allowing 40 acres of the course where all or part of holes 1-5 currently are located to be set aside for other recreational uses.

The course would presumably be more attractive to juniors and older players who don’t hit the ball a great distance as well as golfers looking for a faster round.

“It made sense to me to create a transitional plan,” Andrews said. “You just can’t walk away from 200 acres, you have to do something to it. If you leave it as an executive course or nine-hole course, at least you have a chance to bring in some revenue.

“At that point you tread water and see what you’ve got. If you need additional land you can carve out another 40 acres and use that land.”

City Council members, Wayne Gray, Mike Lowder and Randal Wallace were far from reaching a consensus on the future of Whispering Pines on Tuesday.

Gray was in favor of the executive course transition.

Lowder said he agreed with the idea of closing the course, but thought a two-week turnaround to make a decision was too quick.

Wallace said he has always argued to keep the course as is, but is beginning to see that something needs to be done.

Mayor John Rhodes said he eventually wants to close the course, though he wants to delay action until Andrews can present financial and logistical information on the different options for the course at the annual city budget retreat in April.

“My ultimate goal is to turn the whole thing into recreation that will promote sports tourism and put heads in beds,” Rhodes said. “I want to get rid of the entire golf course.”

City manager Tom Leath echoed Rhodes’ sentiments. “There’s a higher and better use for that 200 acres as sports recreation pods,” Leath said.

Whether the course remains open or not, Rhodes said city officials are also considering renovating the driving range and installing lights on the practice facility to allow use well after dusk, and that could be accomplished as early as the spring.

But the driving range is on Horry County property that the city pays $22,700 annually to lease, according to Andrews, so the county could eventually inherit the lights. Andrews said an executive course should allow the city to relocate the driving range on city property in part where the ninth fairway resides. Then “we would absolutely want to put lights on it,” Andrews said.

Anything that is done must be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which requires the land must be used for golf or other recreation, and any changes must continue to provide a public benefit.

The U.S. government gave the former Air Force Base course to the city when the base closed in 1993 and must approve any changes, city officials said. Andrews said the federal government “frowned upon” changing the course to a park in the past.

In 2011, the city considered allowing a third party to manage the course, but abandoned the idea after talks with the Department of the Interior indicated the lease would give up too much ownership of the course, Andrews said then.

Staff Writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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