Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

TOP STORY >> Input sought on city parks

Leader staff writer

Before allocating up to $500,000 needed to refurbish a municipal golf course, Sherwood officials want to hear residents’ ideas about how to use the facility as well ways to expand recreational amenities at Sherwood Forest.

City council members are considering reopening North Hills Country Club by next spring as a golf course, but in increments to help offset costs.

To garner public input, two public meetings are scheduled: one next Monday and the other on Monday, May 11. Both will be from 5 to 7 p.m. in Sherwood’s City Council chambers.

At a workshop Monday, council members listened to recommendations from ETC Engineers Inc., a Little Rock firm hired to evaluate Sherwood’s existing recreational offerings and suggest improvements.

Long-range possibilities for the 187-acre Sherwood Forest included tennis courts, walking trails, a fish pond, camp ground, dog park and skateboard park.

The two-hour session was dominated however by discussion about what to do with the once privately owned North Hills Country Club, which the city bought last year for $5 million and now makes a monthly $28,000 mortgage payment for the property.

Other than revenue from an occasional rental of the clubhouse, “we are not getting much back,” said Mayor Virginia Hillman.

Upkeep of the 140-acre facility requires two full-time workers plus the help of a crew of other city workers one day a week. The golf course is open to the public now for hikes, dog walks and the like, said city Parks and Recreation Director Sonny Janssen.

Janssen, who estimated costs of getting the course in shape, said that he regrets having no idea what the course might bring in revenue from greens fees, cart rentals or purchases at the snack bar. Setting greens fees will entail research into the local market that is yet to be done, he said.

The course is reputed as the only one in Arkansas redesigned by nationally renowned golf course planner, Robert Trent Jones. Built more than 50 years ago, the course was redone by Jones in 1979. The aldermen think capitalizing on that distinction might prove lucrative.

So the tentative plan as it stood after the long discussion on Monday was to “go slow, try it out two or three years, then re-evaluate,” Janssen said. “If it makes a profit or breaks even, it could be a good venture.”

Janssen noted after the meeting, other than the hot checks court, “No city department makes money. We provide a service. If we were trying to make a profit, nobody could afford the services. The idea is to try to recoup some of the city’s investment.”

Just how much it would cost to maintain the course year to year at this point is another unknown, Janssen said, adding that consulting with a knowledgeable golf course manager to pin down costs is needed.

If the course is to be ready for play by next spring, city officials need to act quickly. Landscape architect and golf course designer Steve Hales of ETI, recommended replacing the existing grass – a bent grass variety long considered a superior putting surface – with a new, dwarfed variety of Bermuda that can hold up better in scorching Arkansas summers and takes less maintenance, but also makes for good play.

“It’s all the craze now,” Hales said, and several central Arkansas country clubs have switched over to the Bermuda.

The greens will have to be hand planted, then covered in sand and kept moist, then “in eight weeks – bam – they are going to be perfect,” Hale said. “In the summer, Bermuda just takes off.”

The most affordable way to re-do the greens is by sprigging with Bermuda grass runners and that needs to happen before Aug. 1 to take advantage of the long, sunny days of summer. Removal of some trees and thinning branches on others will open up the shady course to sunlight to help the new grass take hold.

Rebuilding of the greens alone will cost $150,000.

Other costs, just through 2009, include sprinkler system repairs at $100,000; maintenance and cart repairs at $50,000, clubhouse repairs at $50,000; signage, tools flags at $25,000; and equipment leasing at $28,000. Salaries for six months would be $35,000 for a golf course superintendent; $13,500 for a full-time maintenance worker and $20,400 for two part-time laborers.

“Until we actually get started, we don’t really know,” said Janssen, “but it is like that with all budgets.”

Janssen told the council that “there is a lot of things we can do in-house” to cut costs on the project. That could eventually include digging a second retaining pond to capture groundwater for irrigation of the greens and fairways. In the past, the front nine holes were watered with water from the existing pond. City water – purchased from Central Arkansas Water – took care of the back nine holes. The loop design of the irrigation connects mains for the front and back courses, so surplus water from two ponds could go where needed.

The fact that the pond refills in a matter of hours makes officials optimistic that there is plenty more where that came from to entirely wean the course off bought water.

“It would refill each day after watering at night,” Janssen said. But it will take building the pond to know for sure.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the initial investment would bring the course up to a 3 or 4 in quality, said Hales. “That golf course has great bones and is extremely visual and fun to play,” Hales said, acknowledging too that it has the reputation among some as being somewhat challenging.

Smoothing out the sand traps “to make the land forms more subtle” might make playing more enjoyable for some golfers and would bring the course up to a 6, Hale said. The work is estimated at $100,000.

“Why don’t we do a trial run to just get it up and running to see how it holds up and to limit your investment, then later bring it to full potential,” Hale suggested.

Alderman Becki Vassar liked the idea of doing improvements in phases.

“We don’t have to write a big check at the beginning,” she said.