Golfers at Whispering Pines Golf Course on Wednesday said they were glad to hear there were no major changes planned at the course as Myrtle Beach passes operations to Atlantic Golf Management.
The Murrells Inlet-based firm will begin operating the city-owned course on Friday after Myrtle Beach City Council approved a concessionaire agreement during their Tuesday meeting.
“I just hope they do at least as well as the existing managers,” Joe Orlowski said Wednesday. Orlowski lives in Connecticut, but spends about three months at his home in Murrells Inlet each year. “Just don’t raise the rates. If you’re charging $10 more, people are going to find somewhere else to go.”
Atlantic Golf owner Chip Smith said he has no plans to raise the rates. City Council selected Atlantic Golf from a field of seven firms who applied to operate the course.
Smith said he has done some work on the course, mostly cleaning up the golf cart barn and club house, but was waiting until the agreement was official before doing too much.
The National Park Service recently approved the agreement between Myrtle Beach and Atlantic Golf. The park service had to 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.
Smith also has printed up some marketing materials to highlight the course’s close proximity to Myrtle Beach International Airport.
“A great way to start or end your Myrtle Beach vacation,” reads a flier advertising the course.
Smith said he thinks many golfers traveling to town will take advantage of the course as soon as they land at the airport.
“When you look at the flight schedule, it’s hard to land and get to your hotel and play the same day,” Smith said. “You lose a day. ... I’m working with beach bags and hotels to [spread the word].”
Smith said he’s seen a group of about 16 men walking over to the course from the airport.
It’s something that Orlowski said his friends have done before.
“I have friends from Connecticut last year who flew in and before they check into their hotel they played here,” he said.
Orlowski plays with a group of men each Wednesday while he’s in town and many said they hope the change in management doesn’t result in changes to the staff.
“The bag guys Larry and Joe are a real asset,” said Socastee resident Mack Reeder. “It’s a great start to the game.”
The concessionaire agreement allows a six-month transition period for the course’s employees, where the city will pay the difference between the rate those working at Whispering Pines currently receive and the compensation that comparable private sector positions receive.
The city pays Whispering Pines employees an average of $14.72 per hour. Smith, who also owns TPC Myrtle Beach, pays $9 per hour, assistant city manager Ron Andrews said.
After the six months, employees can inquire about working for Atlantic Golf or find employment elsewhere. There also may be opportunities for employees to find other positions within the city.
“There are still six employees there,” Andrews said. “I know for a fact that two have moved to other positions with the city.”
There also are about 15 temporary employees working at Whispering Pines who had agreed to leave their positions when the transition is made on Friday. However, Andrews said Smith told those employees they could continue to work at the course for Atlantic Golf and he would continue to pay them at the same rate.
Smith said his longer-range plans for the course include updates to the club house and the cart barn, as well as upgrading the irrigation system.
Andrews also said that Smith plans to continue whatever loyalty programs are currently offered at the course.
“He’s not going to discontinue anything immediately,” he said. “Whatever we have done as a city, he’ll continue to honor. And if he doesn’t [customers] can come to me and I’ll deal with it.”
Additionally, Atlantic Golf will pay the city 3.5 percent of gross revenues once the course makes more than $1.1 million. City officials say the course has operated at a loss of about $250,000 a year for the past four years.
Andrews said the city had been spending about $1.1 million annually to maintain and operate the course.
The agreement also establishes a capital improvement program where Atlantic Golf will contribute money to the city annually if the course makes more than $1 million in gross revenue. The city will set that money aside to be used for a list of projects for improvement, with the first being the replacement or improvement of the existing clubhouse.
City Council also approved an agreement Tuesday with Atlantic Golf to operate and maintain the driving range adjacent to the golf course. The city has leased the driving range from Horry County for $22,700 a year. Atlantic Golf will reimburse that cost as well as pay the city 10 percent of any revenue exceeding $22,700.
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.