Can Tony Butler Survive: Selling nine-hole ‘short course’ an option

Seventy five golfers were out early this morning at Tony Butler Golf Course supporting the Harlingen Rotary Club to raise funds for local service projects

HARLINGEN — For decades, many Winter Texans have come here to play the Tony Butler Golf Course’s nine-hole “short course.”

Now, a national consultant’s report suggests turning the 27-hole golf course into an 18-hole course to help fund millions of dollars worth of recommended improvements.

City commissioners, along with a new committee appointed to review the National Golf Foundation’s 97-page report, will likely consider the option of selling the tract running from the 19th to 27th holes.

“That’s part of the discussion I anticipate will be addressed by the committee and later the commission,” Mayor Chris Boswell said. “There’s nothing predetermined here.”

Meanwhile, City Manager Dan Serna said the consultant’s report questions “the sustainability of 27 holes considering the market conditions.”

In January, Winter Texans joined local golfers, packing City Hall, in part to urge commissioners against selling the nine-hole “short course.”

“It has an economic impact,” Tim Elliott, the owner of Tim’s Custom Golf who’s a new member of the city’s Golf Course Advisory Board, said of the golf course. “It pulls people. There’s a group of people who winter here because of the golf course.”

But Art Gonzalez, a member of the Pan American Golf Association, said the sale of the nine holes could help fund improvements aimed at keeping the Tony Butler Golf Course in business.

“That’s the only way they’re going to get money, in my opinion,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the city can’t afford to fund millions of dollars worth of improvements.

“I don’t think the city will spend that much money to restore the golf course,” he said. “If you’re not going to put money into the golf course, the golf course is not going to survive.”

Gonzalez said he believes many Winter Texans would continue playing at Tony Butler even after a sale of the nine-hole tract.

“If you’re a golfer, you’re going to play,” he said.

The nine-hole tract measures 2,600 yards partially running along the Interstate 69 frontage road, making that prime real estate.

However, Boswell said there might not be a market for the nine-hole tract.

“I don’t know whether we can sell the nine holes or whether there’s a buyer for the nine holes,” he said.

The tract’s sale would also trim about a third of the 230-acre golf course.

As city officials consider cost-cutting steps, the move would significantly reduce maintenance expenses.

In the report, the consultants suggest keeping the nine holes might not be feasible considering fewer players — and fewer Winter Texans — are playing the Tony Butler Golf Course.

“It is difficult to make a business case for retaining 27 holes when overall utilization rates, based on effective capacity, have declined to 33 percent or lower,” the consultants state in the report’s executive summary.

“Though not enough data was available to affirmatively say that holes 19 through 27 lose money, we were told that play on this course during the April through mid-October off-season is minimal,” the report states. “However, the short course is very important to its key user group during the peak season — Winter Texans, who enjoy the short length, affordability and walkability of the nine-hole course.”

The consultants point to “the potential need for parts of the nine-hole course to be repurposed (e.g., through lease to a private entity) in order to fund improvements to the 18-hole course.”

“Part of the land that holes 19 through 23 sit on may have significant value to the private sector under another land use, possibly providing some of the funding that will be required to renovate the 18-hole course.”

The report, for which the city paid $22,000, recommends as much as $7 million worth of improvements.

“It would be a huge expense,” Boswell said.

For about six months, area golfers waited for the report’s release, which came earlier this month.

“The study was very thorough,” Elliott said. “They covered the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s up to the city now to decide how they move forward.”

The report recommended replacing much of the Tony Butler’s course.

“We found that course conditions were poor, with partial turf loss on greens, hard, crusty bunkers, drainage problems throughout and an irrigation system that doesn’t keep up with demand in hot summer months to keep the course green,” the report states.

“Based on our evaluation, we believe that Tony Butler Golf Course finds itself in the position of needing to replace nearly all its infrastructure just to survive and remain in business with a functioning golf course.”

Recommendations include rebuilding or replacing “major infrastructure components of the 18-hole course — greens, irrigation system, bunkers, drainage” at a cost of $3.75 million, the report states.

“We recommend, at a minimum, replacing and/or upgrading all major infrastructure components, including greens, irrigation system, bunkers, drainage and tees.”

The consultants also suggested a “transformational renovation and redesign of the 18-hole course with the goal of attaining the maximum benefit in terms of marketing and long-term sustainability” at a “preliminary cost” estimated at $7 million.

“At Tony Butler, these ‘transformational’ design improvements would include elements such as improving aesthetics, enlarging greens, lengthening the course 6,800 yards from the back tees, enlarging and enhancing practice facilities and possibly rerouting some holes,” the report states.

But even after pumping millions, the golf course would likely continue to operate in the red.

For about five years, the city-owned golf course has operated in the red.

Since 2013, the course has lost about $1 million.

Now, it’s apparently on track to lose at least $500,000 a year if the city fails to improve operations.

Options also include contracting with a private company to operate the golf course as part of a public-private partnership.

By the Numbers

• $22,000 — cost of a study to boost the golf course’s revenues

• Five years — city-owned golf course has operated in the red

• $1 million — amount the course has lost since 2013

• $500,000 — amount on track to lose a year if the city fails to improve operations

• $3.7 million to $7 million — recommended amount of improvements needed

fdelvalle@valleystar.com