By Gary Gray
The delightfully playable yet financially draining Buffalo Valley Golf Course will close Dec. 31, marking an end to Johnson City’s foray into golf at the Unicoi County location.
Those wanting to make the city an offer on the roughly $665,000 parcel are invited to do so. Requests for proposals will go out soon, and Unicoi County has been officially and cordially invited to throw their hat in the ring.
“This is not a quick decision,” Commissioner Joe Wise said. “We want to be good neighbors with Unicoi County, and I certainly would want them to have an opportunity.”
Though the final verdict came in a unanimous vote last week by city commissioners after a blunt presentation by golf consultant Jim Keegan, the writing has been on the wall for several years.
“I think the picture that was painted is that it is extremely unlikely that Buffalo Valley would ever break even,” City Manager Pete Peterson said. “Keeping the course going will run six-figure deficits.”
Serious concerns bubbled up in May when a request was made to pull the city’s golf fund status from an enterprise (self-supporting) and place it instead in the general fund raised some eyebrows. The request included the city’s two courses, Buffalo Valley and Pine Oaks.
A workshop ensued, and most commissioners were hesitant to roll golf’s revenues and expenses into a larger stack of “paperwork” fearing a loss of transparency.
A second workshop was scheduled. It was cancelled, however, and there were no additional meetings on the matter. Though it was not discussed at the recent City Commission meeting, the vote also moved the financial accounting of the city’s golf operations into its general fund.
“When Buffalo Valley was purchased (1993 for $1.5 million), the discussion was that golf needed to be self-supporting, and that establishing golf as an enterprise fund was deemed the most appropriate way to ensure it would not take Parks and Recreation resources,” Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin told The News & Neighbor. “I’m not sure if golf revenues have ever allowed it to be self-supporting. In the seven budgets I have participated in, it certainly has not stood on its own, requiring yearly general fund transfers of $400,000 to $600,000 per year.”
Golf Director Jim Hughes has consistently championed maintaining operations at Buffalo Valley as well as the need for golf in general, though he admitted rounds purchased have been declining. He also said the “wavering opinion” of what might happen to the course affected memberships and numbers of rounds played.
The golf director position will be eliminated by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl was tasked this summer with bringing to commissioners a recommendation for Buffalo Valley. Options included: continue operating the course; enter into discussions with the Town of Unicoi about a lease/purchase agreement; consider an agreement with a national golf course management firm; sell the course through a brokerage firm specializing in golf courses, or terminate operations and maintain the property until its future is determined.
General RFPs will go out, and responses will be reviewed. Should the interest be lackluster, the city will hire a broker or marketing firm to solicit buyers.
“We have had people express interest informally,” Stahl said. “We will secure the property, but it will not be maintained to golf course standards. We are recommending that no less than 50 hours a week be spent keeping the grounds neat and trimmed. We will consult with Risk Management about maintaining security.”
Rounds played at Pine Oaks since 2012 have remained flat and averaged about 22,000. Buffalo Valley’s numbers have decreased in that time from 19,225 to 11,162. Keegan reported that golf nationwide experienced an increase of 50 percent from the mid-1980s to 2000. From that point on, the number of courses exceeded demand and by 2006 more courses were closing than opening.
To counter the losses, investments in capital and equipment at both courses were deferred and full-time staffing reduced to eight full-time employees — the same number as 1989, when Johnson City owned and operated Pine Oaks only.
Since 2006, the Golf Fund has consistently required a subsidy from the general fund, and the collective cost to taxpayers has been more than $8.7 million. Replacement of aging equipment at Buffalo Valley alone would cost the city $344,000.
Buffalo Valley is in need of equipment, a parking lot/cart path, repair and replacement of the irrigation system and replacement of the clubhouse. These needs total more than $1.6 million.
Commissioners agreed closing Buffalo Valley now would be the least disruptive as far as operations when patrons and temporary staffing is at a low point.
The city will transfer equipment and inventory to Pine Oaks, but other city departments may use some of the furnishings and materials. One full-time store clerk position will transfer to Pine Oaks, and all temporary positions will be terminated on Dec. 31.
Both the Town of Unicoi and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department will be notified about the closure. Temporary staff will maintain the parcel.