Golfers keeping eyes on city

Commission to hire consultant to help boost golf course revenue

HARLINGEN — Golfers packed City Hall last night to air their concerns about the Tony Butler Golf Course.

In the end, city commissioners agreed to hire a consultant to review operations at the financially ailing course.

“The intent is to hire a consultant — someone who understands the industry — to provide recommendations,” City Manager Dan Serna told the crowd of about 75, many of them Winter Texans, who attended last night’s commission meeting.

Assistant City Manager Carlos Sanchez said it will cost as much as $25,000 to hire a consultant to evaluate operations and management amid a competitive market.

The golfers made it clear they will be watching what steps the city takes.

For about five years, the golf course has been losing money, pushing the city to dip into its $43 million general fund to offset shortfalls.

For weeks, officials have discussed options aimed at boost revenue, including hiring a consultant.

“We’re going to try to find ways to balance the books out there to continue to make Tony Butler the best course it can be,” Mayor Chris Boswell told the audience that filled up City Hall chambers.

Another option has apparently included selling a tract featuring holes 19 to 27.

“Tony Butler is a jewel — don’t cut it up,” Steve Brewer, a resident who served as La Feria’s mayor, urged commissioners.

The holes, partially running along the Interstate 69 frontage road, help draw Winter Texans and high school players to the course.

“If you sell off the short nine holes, you’re selling off history,” Brewer told commissioners. “It’s an extremely famous golf course. This was a stop on the PGA tour. It’s been neglected for 20 years, in my opinion.”

Tim Elliott, a member of the city’s new golf committee who owns Tim’s Custom Golf, told commissioners the golf course has to better compete with other area courses.

“We are in such a competitive market. We have to change,” Elliott said. “These folks are mobile. They’ve got to have a reason to come.”

Elliott noted a Brownsville golf course is holding happy hour during football games at its pro shop.

“You’ve got to show golfers a good time,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to create atmosphere. We haven’t had it in a long time.”

Buck Bickley said the city has to follow a recipe to draw golfers.

“It’s not only a golf industry — it’s hospitality and recreation,” Bickley said. “If you don’t have a combination, you won’t be successful.”

Mike Henrick said golfers will monitor the city’s response to their concerns.

“We will be listening, reading the newspaper and holding you accountable,” Henrick said.

During his presentation, Sanchez told commissioners golf courses around the country face drops in players.

“This is a problem not only at the Tony Butler Golf Course but all around,” Commissioner Tudor Uhlhorn said. “They’re very expensive to maintain.”

Sanchez said fewer Winter Texans are playing the course.

In the Rio Grande Valley, now home to 33 golf courses, many are offering discounts, Sanchez said.

At Tony Butler, the city is charging $28 for 18-holes of golf.

“We have one of the most economical ones,” Sanchez said of fees.

So far, options have included hiring a company to better fertilize, irrigate and mow to improve what some golfers have described as balding greens.

“There are some capital improvements that are needed,” Sanchez said, referring to the course’s greens and fairways.

Only four Valley courses, he said, offer 27-hole facilities.

Across the 206-acre golf course, the nine additional holes help boost maintenance costs, Sanchez said.