LEESBURG — Although county leaders stand by the Lee County Parks and Recreation Authority’s decision to cease golf operations at Grand Island Golf Club on Dec. 15, the decision seems to have little immediate bearing on the future of the planned $50 million hospital expected to be built on the golf course property.
With intense rumors surrounding the future of the golf course since news of the hospital deal broke this summer, county officials said the decision to close the course, which has been under county control since 2002, was a financial one.
“The burden on the county is not getting any lighter,” said Parks and Recreation Authority Chairman and County Commissioner Luke Singletary when addressing the authority Monday night. “Up through 2012, the county had written off over $2 million. At this point, as of 10/31 2016, there’s another $622,000 that the county stands to write off.”
Singletary, who grew up playing the golf course — which has been a staple in Lee County since it was first developed by John Gay in 1994 — said the decision to close the course had weighed heavily on him since he had high hopes that course operations could be turned around.
“I realize you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Singletary said in front of at least two dozen county residents who attended the meeting. “We attempted to go up on rates, we changed the food costs. We made a lot of changes. The reality is we couldn’t run it like a private course and keep it in the great condition it was in and charge public rates.
“Really it’s just the cost, the ongoing cost to run it. We’re losing $300,000 a year at its current state.”
Parks and Recreation Director Jeremy Morey, who has also been serving as the interim director of the golf course for the last 15 months, reinforced Singletary’s statement, explaining that despite the changes and the hard work of the course’s employees, the time had come to close up shop.
“We tried to attack what we could fix easily,” said Morey. “As you know, the economy has been struggling and I think golf isn’t what it used to be. I think you can ask anybody that owns a golf course.
“I’m at the point where I need to turn it over to you guys. The course is operating at a loss (and) the county’s having to contribute.”
In making the motion to cease Grand Island operations on Dec. 15, authority member Jamie Knight said he felt the county simply couldn’t continue to lose that kind of money, especially in the face of what the hospital development could mean to the entire community.
“We knew this was coming,” Knight said. “The net operating losses are kind of insurmountable, and at this point we’re not going to get those back and continue to operate as a golf course. I think there’s an opportunity here for Lee County that can be the biggest thing Lee County’s ever seen. The decision we have to make is based on what we know and what we hope.”
When discussing the authority’s decision at Tuesday night’s Lee County Commission meeting, chairman Rick Muggridge echoed those sentiments, saying that while he fully supports recreation in the community, he felt closing the course was in the best interest of the majority of county residents.
“It is a bittersweet day that we make the decision to finally close the golf course,” said Muggridge. “I’ve been a supporter for seven years of maintaining the golf course. There are people that Grand Island is a part of their life, the employees, the faithful members.”
Some within the community have argued that Muggridge and other commission members have not been supportive of the golf course and that the commission’s general view of the course as a burden has hurt Grand Island’s potential to grow.
Jeff Entz said he believes the current commission is as much to blame for the course’s lagging business as anything else.
“Every time the commissioners say something about this golf course, it kills the business,” said Entz. “New members don’t show up, parties don’t get booked, people go elsewhere. So the commissioners have done a lot to kill this thing in the last couple of years, even though they say they’re trying to make it work.”
Entz, who said he has played the course regularly for the past 17 years and worked part-time at Grand Island for the last nine, said he also thinks there’s nothing wrong with a municipality funding recreation in a community.
“I grew up in a suburban neighborhood community, and we had golf courses, recreation and nobody thought twice about paying for it,” he said. “I’ve maintained it for so long and played it for so long, it’s very close to me, so I’m biased of course. But you’re never going to have another golf course in Lee County, and this one is a good golf course. Everybody loves it.”
In his comments Muggridge said he does support recreation in Lee County, but he offered the argument that with a membership, which Morey estimates around 250, only a small percentage of the population is being served by Grand Island.
“Nobody on this board is a bigger proponent of recreation,” Muggridge said. “I believe recreation is economic development. People live and people invest where they enjoy being, and recreation is part of a full life. But, as I considered everything, only a small percentage of our population is playing golf.”
Regardless of his feelings about recreation and the growing financial costs, Muggridge said that the decision to close the course was also heavily impacted by the proposed hospital development, since the developers of the hospital had targeted that specific property.
“This opportunity, it is too important not to do everything in our power to facilitate what’s happening,” he said. “I’ve said on more than one occasion that governments don’t create jobs, that private investors do. But governments can create conditions that make those private investments possible.
“This is the place that would work for the investors. This is the place that we believe will work for the state.”
Before the construction process can begin on the hospital, the development group must obtain a Certificate of Need from the state board of health.
That process has been somewhat in limbo since news broke last week that the Grand Island Homeowners Association intends to file a lawsuit against the county, saying that the proposed development violates an easement granted by the original development.
Homeowners Association President John Ricketson told The Albany Herald last Monday that the lawsuit would be filed by the end of the week, but as of Tuesday night, Muggridge said the suit had not yet been filed.
“I don’t think it’s been filed because I haven’t been served and Luke (Singletary) hasn’t been served and so, theoretically, it would be the chairman of the Board of Commissioners or the chairman of the Parks and Rec Authority,” Muggridge said. “We anticipate it. Internal discussions say any day now. I think they’re just trying to make sure who they need to sue, the correct party, that kind of thing. So we anticipate that within literally days.”