Decision could come soon on future of Myrtle Beach’s Whispering Pines Golf Course

mprabhu@thesunnews.comJuly 2, 2014 

JANET BLACKMON MORGAN — jblackmon@thesunnews.com Buy Photo

The city of Myrtle Beach might be one step closer to at least a temporary resolution for the questions surrounding Whispering Pines Golf Course after its next City Council meeting.

Council members are expected to decide at Tuesday’s meeting between the seven firms that applied to handle management of the failing, city-owned course.

City staff put out a request for proposals in May seeking input from firms who would operate Whispering Pines, which city officials have said has operated at a loss of about $250,000 a year for the past four years.

Suggestions found in the proposals range from adding junior golf and Wounded Warrior programs and high school and college tournaments to offering internship programs and rebranding the course.

Four of the seven applicants presented to City Council at its June 10 workshop, laying out plans to turn the course around.

Several firms are offering profit-sharing options once the course covers it expenses. A few firms have asked the city to pay a management fee and/or pay for any improvements to the course.

“We said that the city is not going to put any more money into it,” assistant city manager Ron Andrews said. “Those that have that happening probably won’t be considered.”

One of the seven firms – Whispering Pines Advocates – offered a nonprofit business plan that would offer programs that cater to children and military veterans.

The Murrells Inlet-based firm, comprised of two former PGA of America presidents and current and former S.C. Golf Association presidents, would focus on junior golf and developmental golf for Wounded Warriors.

“We want to serve the needs of all golfers,” said Will Mann, one of the organizations four founders and director of Coastal Carolina University’s PGA Golf Management Program.

However, the group is asking the city to pay for all grounds improvements.

On the other end of the spectrum, Huntsville, Ala.-based Robertson Golf Management Inc. officials told City Council during the workshop that they would assume all financial responsibilities, operational and capital.

“We think it’s an opportunity for us, personally, to add our experience and add the value to the community, which we would,” said David Robertson, president of Robertson Golf Management.

City manager Tom Leath said he and Andrews will go through the proposals and likely make some type of recommendation to City Council. He said they may also consider other options for the course, such as continuing to run it in-house, converting to a shorter, executive course, or closing it all together and making it park land.

“There’s a full range of possibilities that Ron and I have not come to a consensus on,” he said. “[Making an executive course] is still a possibility.”

Andrews said it’s possible that City Council make a short-term decision to enter an agreement with a firm to manage Whispering Pines and in the future opt to turn a portion of the course into athletic fields or a festival area.

“There’s an immediate direction that’s needed to get us doing something different than we have been doing,” Andrews said. “It could be long-term or it could be temporary. ... Who ever’s running it needs to understand that it’s still owned by the city.”

Robertson was the only representative of the four firms at the workshop who said they still would be interested in operating the course if it was a smaller, executive course.

If the city chooses to establish a vendor agreement with a firm to move forward with plans for the struggling golf course, the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Park Service would have to approve changes.

The U.S. government gave the former Air Force Base golf course to the city when the base closed in 1993. The course must be used for golf or other recreation and cannot be leased to another entity. However, Andrews said he would try to find a way to draft a vendor agreement that the federal government would accept.

Bill Reynolds, spokesman for the National Park Service in Atlanta, said a vendor agreement could be allowed for the management of Whispering Pines.

“A third-party agreement is OK as long as the use of the land does not change from park and recreations purposes,” he said.

Council also decided during its April retreat to begin treating the course as a recreation asset instead of as an enterprise fund, the way it has been operating. The change is mainly a shift in accounting, where money generated by the course would cover the operational cost, Andrews said.

The city has struggled to determine how best to handle the 6,700-yard course, which first opened for play in 1962 and is the only city- or government-owned course among about 100 on the Grand Strand.

Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or on Twitter @TSN_mprabhu.

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