Whispering Pines to remain open while Myrtle Beach explores option of outside vendor taking over operation

Whispering Pines Golf Course will continue to operate as it is for the next year, while Myrtle Beach city staff members consult with the U.S. Department of the Interior to determine whether they can allow a vendor to take over management of the course.

After assistant city manager Ron Andrews on Monday presented a number of options for the struggling 200-acre course, Myrtle Beach City Council decided to continue to run the course as it is for at least the next year. The course would be treated as a recreation asset instead of as an enterprise fund, the way it currently is operated.

City manager Tom Leath said the change is mainly a shift in accounting.

“If something is set up as an enterprise fund, it is operated like a business and therefore it is expected to generate enough money to fund itself,” he said. “If it’s recreation, it’s funded through the general fund. You can’t make money off of it.”

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 can not 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.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at different options, and put some numbers on those options,” he said. “If we offer the golf course as is for someone else to run, I don’t know that I can write the agreement that will satisfy the Department of the Interior.”

Whispering Pines, owned by the city, has lost an average of $250,000 a year over the last four years, 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.

Options presented ranged from leaving the course as is, while operating it through an enterprise fund, to closing the course entirely and using the land for other recreational uses. All of those options included either capital or maintenance costs – or both – that council members said they didn’t want to spend on the course.

“If our attempt is to close the gap of expense over revenue, none of these options do it,” Councilman Wayne Gray said. “Based on options presented … it really just takes us back to ‘operate it as is and do the best you can.’ ”

Leath said some groups had approached the city with suggestions of ways to run the course more efficiently. If the Department of the Interior allows the city to allow a vendor to operate the course, City Council could choose to hear those suggestions.

Councilman Randal Wallace said that if the city continued to operate Whispering Pines, he’d like to see more marketing for the course. But Andrews said he did not think additional money should be spent on marketing the course.

“I think advertising is more from how you treat the customer, the things you do on the golf course to make it a pleasant experience,” Andrews said.

Gray also said he didn’t see any benefit to investing more money into the course.

“Continue as is, convert to a recreational asset, explore the possibility with the Department of the Interior of having a vendor agreement, and do that for the next 12 months,” he said. “And don’t spend any more money on it.”