Golf course upgrades? City calls for $2.6 million for Tony Butler

Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star Golfers made their way around the Tony Butler Golf Course early yesterday morning

HARLINGEN — It could take as much as $2.6 million to pull the Tony Butler Golf Course out of the hole.

Now, members of the Harlingen Community Improvement Board are considering whether to dip into the agency’s $4.7 million budget to try to revive the 90-year-old icon that’s lost about $1 million in the last seven years.

At City Hall, officials are putting the cost of major improvements at about $2.6 million, downscaling a national consultant’s recommended price tag of about $7 million.

Inside the Community Improvement Board, Chairman Jesse Robles and member John Guevara have expressed concern the $2.6 million project could squeeze their budget, funded through a one-eighth-cent sales tax, tying up money earmarked for other so-called quality-of-life projects such as the Lon C. Hill Destination Park.

“It’s just the limit on our funds and priorities,” Robles said Tuesday, noting the Community Improvement Board will fund about $4 million of new park improvements. “The only real issue is we have a commitment to the park and we need to fund that.”

“We’re still looking at it in a positive way,” he said of funding the golf course project. “It’s not to say that down the road we won’t consider the golf course. It’s a prime piece of real estate. A golf course can be a great complement to any business in that area.”

Meanwhile, city commissioners including Commissioners Michael Mezmar and Victor Leal believe a revived 18-hole golf course could help draw tourist dollars while offering residents a peerless recreational venue.

Holding off

Last month, members of the Community Improvement Board held back on calling for a 60-day public comment period that would give residents a chance to speak out on the project.

Instead, they requested City Manager Dan Serna update the golf course’s revenue projections and proposed improvements to help them reconsider funding the project during an upcoming meeting.

Phasing-in project

On Tuesday, Javier Mendez, the city’s parks director, said the city could “phase-in” the proposed improvements.

“We want to phase this in as much as possible,” he said.

But if officials decide to fund the golf course’s improvements in phases, a $230,000 drainage project aimed at low-lying fairway areas should come first, Mendez said.

Next, he said, officials would fund a $1.6 million project aimed at upgrading the golf course’s irrigation system.

That project carries the biggest price tag.

“It’s overdue for us to renovate the irrigation system,” Mendez said. “The irrigation system is over 20 years old. By standard practice, they usually have a life of 15 years.”

After completing the drainage and irrigation upgrades, officials would fund a $500,500 project to improve the greens, he said.

In-house work

Meanwhile, Jeff Hart, the golf course’s new general manager and golf pro, has been working to improve the course.

“The guys have been working hard to get the greens back in shape,” Mendez said.

On the course, Hart and his crew are aerating greens while adding fertilizer along with pesticides to kill nematodes, pests eating up the turf.

“The golf course is in good shape compared to what it was. They could improve a lot,” golfer Art Gonzalez said. “The greens are a lot better than they were. They need a little bit more.”

Players coming back

Now, the golf course is drawing more players.

This year, play’s up 10 to 20 percent, Mendez said, noting golf courses are offering players safer recreational choices during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our numbers — our revenue for play is higher than last year,” he said “We attribute that to COVID or improvements to the course. We’re definitely pleased the numbers are going up and people are playing golf. Now, some of the Winter Texans have returned so we’ll see how this season goes.”

Five holes up for sale

Earlier this year, city commissioners agreed 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 — to help fund improvements.

Last year, officials paid $22,000 to hire the National Golf Foundation, a national golf consulting firm, to recommend upgrades aimed pulling the 230-acre golf course out of the hole.

In a 97-page report, the consultants’ recommendations included selling the nine-hole short course to turn the 27-hole facility into an 18-hole course.

In January 2019, 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 aimed at overhauling 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.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com