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City is negotiating for new management for 2 golf courses

A golfer chooses clubs on the driving range at the Lester Park Golf Course in Duluth in September. (2014 file / News Tribune)

The city of Duluth aims to bring new management to its Enger Park and Lester Park golf courses in 2015.

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, disclosed that the city is negotiating a five-year agreement with Billy Casper Golf to operate the two municipal golf courses.

“We are pleased today to announce that the city of Duluth’s public golf program is entering an exciting new phase that will enable us to continue the city’s 88-year history of providing quality, affordable golf experiences, and now to do so on a more financially sustainable basis,” he said.

The Vienna, Va.-based company already manages more than 140 golf courses in 28 states nationwide, but the Duluth courses will mark its first foray into Minnesota, assuming the Duluth City Council approves the prospective contract.

“Duluth golf has a tremendous future, and we’re excited to be here,” said W. Douglas White, vice present of business development for Billy Casper Golf.

Filby Williams expressed optimism that the new operator will help address deteriorating course conditions and a city golf fund that’s now $1.6 million in the red.

Three operators responded to Duluth’s request for proposals earlier this year, providing complete offers. Those proposals were reviewed and company representatives were interviewed by a task force composed of city administration staff, city councilors, golfers and members of the broader community. Filby Williams said Billy Casper Golf emerged as the unanimous choice of the task force, largely because of its impressive track record. The company operates more than 140 golf courses nationwide, including 72 that are municipal or publicly owned.

“In numerous municipalities, Billy Casper Golf has turned around the financial performance of failing golf operations and at the same time improved the golfing experience for citizens,” Filby Williams said.

The current operator of the golf course, Professional Golf Management, was one of the three candidates considered by the task force, and while it was not selected, Filby Williams expressed the city’s appreciation for service rendered by the firm and the course superintendent, Jud Crist cq .

“PGM took over operations at a time when the survival of the golf program was in great doubt, and they not only kept the program alive but laid a new foundation for customer service, course stewardship and community outreach that we can build upon today. We thank Jud and his team for their excellent service and for the willingness they have demonstrated to support new management through this transition,” he said.

White said he met Crist for the first time this week and was impressed with his deep knowledge of the municipal courses, which he has golfed since childhood.

“We spent a lot of time with Jud, and we’re excited to say we’re continuing our conversations about Jud being a part of our organization moving forward,” White said.

White said Billy Casper Golf will look to make capital improvements as part of any management agreement with the city.

“A lot of that will be along the lines of the golf course, the bunkers and the playability, and of course some work in the clubhouses, as well,” he said.

Filby Williams said more exact terms of a capital plan will be agreed upon in a final agreement, but he considered it too soon to discuss specifics.

Duluth’s expectations of the new manager will be more modest during its first five years operating in the city than down the road, Filby Williams said. He said if the relationship works, the city probably will seek to enter into a longer-term lease agreement with Billy Casper Golf.

For the near future, the city is expected to remain on the financial hook for any losses at the golf courses.

“However, much of Billy Casper’s potential compensation for their services is contingent upon moving us from the red to the black. So there are meaningful financial incentives to improve the city’s bottom line that were not previously in place,” Filby Williams said.

White said that his company’s analysis indicates the golf courses could be self-sustaining within the first year of new management. He also offered assurances that there are no plans to bump up fees in 2015.

As new management gets to know the Duluth market, Filby Williams voiced hopes the company will take on a larger operational role with a follow-on agreement that could dramatically reduce the city’s financial exposure in the future.

“In the potential second phase — a long-term lease — the opportunity for profits and the liability for losses would fall entirely on the operator,” he said.

Duluth City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud, who served on the task force that picked Billy Casper Golf, noted that more than 90 percent of the entities that contract with the company choose to renew their agreements.

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