Myrtle Beach council selects local golf firm to operate Whispering Pines

Murrells Inlet-based Atlantic Golf Management will enter a concession agreement with Myrtle Beach to take over operations of the struggling city-owned Whispering Pines Golf Course.

Myrtle Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to enter an agreement with Chip Smith, who owns Atlantic Golf Management. Smith also owns TPC Myrtle Beach.

Smith said he will begin managing the course immediately, focusing on cleaning up the course.

“It needs a lot of TLC,” Smith said Tuesday after being selected. “It’s growing season right now. Either you’re growing grass or you’re growing weeds.”

City Council chose between Atlantic Golf and Huntsville, Ala.-based Robertson Golf Management. City staff recommended Robertson Golf, but Mayor John Rhodes said Smith’s local connection gave Atlantic Golf the edge.

“Mr. Smith has got that feel of Myrtle Beach,” Rhodes said. “Being here almost all of his life, I think he’ll have his heart in it.”

Steve Robertson said his brother has lived in Myrtle Beach for the past two years and he has lived in the city for a year. The two co-own Robertson Golf.

Smith said he’s been in the Myrtle Beach area for more than 30 years. He also owns Banditos Restaurant & Cantina on Ocean Boulevard and partnered with the city to extend the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk by one block to include the back side of his restaurant.

“I think Whispering Pines is an important part of the community,” Smith told council members during a June 10 workshop. “It’s lacking procedures and programs in place, but you have a really good golf course and a good layout.”

Seven firms submitted proposals to the city in May for a chance to manage the golf course, which city officials have said has operated at a loss of about $250,000 a year for the past four years.

Smith’s proposal said Atlantic Golf would take full financial responsibility of Whispering Pines and pay the nearly $23,000 annual lease to Horry County for the course’s driving range. The city leases the range from the county.

Smith said Atlantic Golf also would evaluate the course’s employees and could possibly offer some of them jobs with the company. The firm would aim to hire students from Coastal Carolina University to manage the pro shop and both CCU and Horry-Georgetown Technical College students to manage food and beverage sales.

The proposal also included the development of a junior golf program.

Assistant city manager Ron Andrews now will work with Smith to draft a concession agreement to submit to the National Park Service for approval.

The park service must approve the plan because 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.

Bill Reynolds, spokesman for the National Park Service in Atlanta, said last week 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.

There is no timetable for when an agreement will be reached and presented to the National Park Service, but Smith said he’s ready to begin managing the course – at no cost to the city.

City manager Tom Leath said he recommended Robertson Golf because the firm was most willing to work with the course were the city to decide to convert Whispering Pines to either an executive course or a nine-hole course.

“My recommendation is that we negotiate with the Robertson group,” Leath said Tuesday. “I believe that allows you maximum flexibility. At some point you can go in another direction either making it an executive course or a nine-hole course, freeing up land for other recreational purposes.”

Leath said the land could be used to host festivals or special events if and when Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. develops the former Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Myrtle Square Mall sites. Both pieces of land, which have been vacant since 2006, host several events throughout the year.

Robertson Golf was the only firm that said it would continue to manage Whispering Pines were it not an 18-hole course.

Smith said while he doesn’t believe a smaller course would work at Whispering Pines, he would do his best with what he had.

“I think it would be a huge uphill battle,” he said. “But we can experiment with it for a little while and try to make it work.”

Rhodes said he’s not concerned that Smith is hesitant about a smaller course.

“I think it’s possible that it could work as a nine-hole course, but that would be way down the road because the amount of money that’s needed to do that is not going to be in our budget for several years,” Rhodes 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.