5 golf holes up for sale at Tony Butler

HARLINGEN — After months of debate, five holes are up for sale at the Tony Butler Golf Course.

Despite some residents’ opposition, city commissioners yesterday voted to sell a 30-acre tract running across holes 19 to 23 of the so-called nine-hole short course — a favorite among many Winter Texan players.

Commissioner Frank Puente cast the lone dissenting vote opposing the move that will turn the 90-year-old, 27-hole facility into an 18-hole golf course.

During the 90-minute meeting, commissioners reviewed a national consulting firm’s recommendations before voting to sell the five holes making up about 30 acres along the Interstate 69 frontage road.

Officials estimate the land could sell for about $5 million, which would help fund as much as $3.7 million worth of recommended improvements at the golf course, which ran a $169,616 deficit last year.

“This is a viable option,” City Manager Dan Serna told commissioners. “That’s the way to do it as opposed to issuing debt. We need the revenue to put back into the golf course.”

If the land doesn’t sell after the tract is placed on the market around December, officials are considering tapping the Harlingen Community Improvement Board to help fund improvements through its one-eighth cent sales tax earmarked for so-called quality-of-life projects.

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

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

Selling the five holes will help cut operating costs, Mayor Chris Boswell said.

“The selling of the five holes will make it easier to break even,” he said.

Officials plan to sell the land to help fund $2.5 million to $3.7 million worth of improvements recommended by the National Golf Foundation, the golf consulting firm hired for $22,000 early this year.

Consultants’ recommendations

In July, officials released the consultants’ recommendations aimed at helping the golf course cut its losses and turn a profit.

“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 consultants report states.

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.”

In a 97-page report, the consultants’ recommendations included selling the nine-hole short course.

The consultants suggest keeping the nine holes might not be feasible considering fewer players — and fewer Winter Texans — are playing the 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.”

A committee helped officials review the consultants’ recommendations.

During yesterday’s meeting, commissioners also considered hiring a private company to operate the golf course.

But that would likely push the city into funding the golf course’s multimillion-dollar overhaul.

Closing the short course

By April 1, officials plan to close the five holes, eliminating the nine-hole short course that draws many Winter Texans players.

Officials aren’t selling holes 24 to 27 because they’re not expected to sell for as much money as the five holes along the frontage road.

Instead, officials are considering turning the tract running across holes 24 to 27 into a parking lot at nearby Victor Park, Assistant City Manager Carlos Sanchez said after the meeting.

Scrapping the nine-hole short course would trim about a third of the 230-acre golf course, slashing maintenance costs.

From the audience, residents like Tim Elliott warned the move could drive many Winter Texans to play other golf courses.

“How many dollars are you going to lose if you send those Winter Texans up to Mission or Pharr?” Elliott, a member of the city’s Golf Course Advisory Board who owns Tim’s Custom Golf, asked commissioners.

However, resident Arnold Solis told commissioners to stop pumping money into the golf course so the city’s other courses could draw its players.

“Let a dying horse die,” he said, adding Tony Butler’s players would help build another course into a premier golfing attraction.

Last January, Winter Texans and area golfers packed City Hall, urging commissioners against selling the nine-hole short course.

Recommended improvements

In their report, the consultants recommended as much as $3.7 million to $7 million worth of improvements, replacing much of the golf 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.”