It has been a long and arduous process to get to the place we are today regarding the Chuck Corica Golf Complex. As a member of Alameda's Golf Commission since 2005 and its chair since 2007, I have dedicated myself to preserving our golf heritage and securing golf in Alameda for the future.
During the course of that mission I have learned a lot of things that I believe will serve me well as a member of Alameda’s City Council.
- I found out how important it is to seek community input in the decision-making process.
- I saw how effective a motivated citizenry can be in persuading Council to do the right thing.
- I realized you can't always trust representations made by outside experts, or by the City’s own staff, without understanding and testing the facts on which they are based.
Below is the story of the fight to preserve and secure the Golf Complex. In one sense, it is a story about golf. But in another, it's a story about how to get things done in and for the City of Alameda. Here's what happened, and 10 lessons I learned:
I. A Complex in Crisis
The City of Alameda opened a municipal golf course - now known as the Earl Fry course - in 1927. It then built a second 18-hole course - now known as the Jack Clark course - in 1956. The nine-hole par-three Mif Albright course came along in 1982. These three courses form the heritage of golf in Alameda.
For many years, the Golf Complex threw off cash -- indeed, so much cash that the City began scooping up bundles of it to subsidize the general fund. By the time I was appointed to the Golf Commission, the golf bloom had started to wither. The Golf Complex was producing less cash -- but the City insisted on maintaining the same level of subsidy to the general fund. As a result, capital improvements plans were shelved and even basic maintenance was deferred.
The Golf Commission showed Council this gloomy picture at a special meeting in January 2007. The politicians' reaction was typical: they decided to hire an outside consulting firm.
The choice of consultants came down to two firms. I recommended that the City hire a small firm that had a track record of turning around other municipal golf courses in financial crisis and that proposed to do a detailed analysis of our specific needs. Instead, City staff picked the National Golf Foundation ("NGF"), a big, national firm that offered a big, national perspective -- at big, national prices.
After conducting an "operational review," NGF recommended finding a private firm to operate the two 18-hole courses. Council responded, again in typical fashion, by engaging NGF -- for another $80,000 -- to prepare a "master plan." A few months later, NGF returned to present Council with a master plan that bore almost no resemblance to its earlier recommendation. This time, NGF wanted to remake one course into a "high end" destination -- and turn the other one into a dump.
The response to NGF's master plan was, to say the least, underwhelming. Council thanked NGF for its efforts and voted to seek an interim manager for the Golf Complex while it tried to figure out a long-term solution.
LESSON NO. 1: If you must hire a consultant, don't be dazzled by a national reputation. And make sure that the consultant understands exactly the scope of its assignment.
II. Preserving Our Heritage: Saving the Mif
The first element of the Golf Complex heritage to come under attack was the Mif. The course had been built with volunteer labor as a place for golfers to learn the fundamentals and to practice their short games. It was never intended to be a profit center and, for reasons that later became clear, the politicians and bureaucrats regarded it as expendable. But junior and senior golfers loved it.
During the NGF operational review, staff told the consultants that the Mif was a money loser that no one played, and, based on this assertion, NGF recommended closing it. Regrettably, the Golf Commission trusted staff and NGF and did not object when Council ordered the course closed in May 2008.
It later turned out that staff had made up the "money loser" argument out of whole cloth. The figures eventually coaxed out of Interim Golf Manager Dale Lillard showed that staff came up with a "loss" by allocating 1/5 of the total Golf Complex overhead to the Mif. In fact, if one looked at actual operating expenses, the Mif cost less to operate than the revenue it was bringing in.
LESSON NO. 2: Don’t trust the conclusions offered by staff or "experts" without verifying the numbers on which they were based.
The City gave the Mif a reprieve for the summer months and then closed it again in November 2008. In early 2009, prompted by an inquiry from his son, 11-year-old junior golfer, Glenn VanWinkle, Alameda resident and business consultant Joe VanWinkle began to look into the City decision to close the Mif. He came to me with his preliminary findings: the Mif was not really losing money, and if the City didn’t want to run it, a non-profit group could be organized to do so, at no cost to the City.
I quickly signed on to support Joe’s plan. In very short order, Joe developed a preliminary business plan for non-profit operation and presented it to City Council in April 2009. Supporters of the non-profit plan packed Council chambers, and the new Interim City Manager ("ICM"), Ann Marie Gallant, reluctantly agreed to reopen the Mif course on a trial basis. The course was reopened with great fanfare on May 21, 2009.
LESSON NO. 3: Listen to and work with people who offer new, creative approaches to City problems.
During the next six months, Joe and his committee continued to refine the non-profit business plan; obtained a challenge grant from local software developer Chris Seiwald, and secured an expression of interest from the Wadsworth Foundation, a charitable organization supporting par-three golf courses nationwide. I sought pledges from golfers and others for start-up costs for the non-profit operation. (My first foray into fundraising). At the monthly meetings of the Golf Commission, I regularly asked the General Manager whether the Mif's revenues were covering expenses. He assured me each month that they were.
I was therefore shocked when, on December 30, 2009, without any prior notice to or consultation with the Golf Commission, the ICM placed on the next Council agenda staff's recommendation that the Mif Albright course be permanently closed. The purported basis? The same discredited numbers previously ginned up by Mr. Lillard.
Although it was a holiday weekend, I quickly set to work mobilizing the troops to fight the staff recommendation. (My first effort at community organizing). I scheduled a special meeting of the Golf Commission on January 2, and, when Mr. Lillard refused to cooperate, I personally gave the required Brown Act meeting notice. More than 40 citizens showed up at the Council meeting to speak out in favor of saving the Mif. After a lengthy discussion, Council voted 5-0 to keep the course open. And it remains open today.
LESSON NO. 4: Get the public involved and participating. Take the initiative to contact citizens whom you know are interested in a particular issue to inform them about the matter coming up on a Council agenda. Don’t rely on the public notice process to get out the word.
III. Preserving Our Heritage: Keeping 36 Holes
At the same time the politicians and bureaucrats were scheming to get rid of the Mif, they also were devising plans to change dramatically the rest of the Golf Complex. Two regulation -- i.e., full-size -- 18-hole courses were a key part of the Complex's heritage. Each course had its own distinct character. And, by having two courses, the Golf Complex was able to host tournaments such as the Commuters that drew low-handicap golfers from far and wide. It also was able to attract profitable tournaments on its own.
The attack on this aspect of the Golf Complex heritage began with the preparation of a Request for Proposals ("RFP") for long-term management. Although Council had repeatedly and explicitly directed staff to "engage the community" about the content of the RFP, the ICM chose to prepare the RFP herself, without input even from the Golf Commission. The final product invited companies to bid on five “scenarios,” apparently of the ICM's own devising. Only one "scenario" contemplated preserving the existing 45-hole configuration. All of the other four found no place for the Mif and thus left that land free for other uses (whose nature would become clear only later). And one of them, apparently prompted by comments from then-Mayor Beverly Johnson, provided for shutting down the Mif and re-configuring the two 18-hole courses into three regulation nine-hole courses and a nine-hole executive course.
LESSON NO. 5: Make sure that staff follows Council directions about the process to be followed in the decision-making process.
Not surprisingly, the RFP was filled with bureaucratese, and the City received only two responses. One came from a small, boutique firm that presented a detailed plan with specific financial projections for operating both 18-holes courses and possibly the Mif. The other was from KemperSports, a national company headquartered in Chicago that was operating the Golf Complex on an interim basis. Kemper endorsed the "concept" behind closing the Mif, building an executive nine-hole course on the front nine of one of the existing 18-hole courses, and operating the rest of the Golf Complex as 27 holes. Aside from touting its reputation and financial strength, Kemper offered no specifics.
Nevertheless, the ICM recommended negotiating with Kemper to flesh out its '"concept." Once again, I needed to mobilize the troops, and quickly (see lesson no. 4), as the recommendation was posted on Thursday before the Tuesday night meeting. Dozens of golfers came out to express unanimous opposition to downsizing the Golf Complex. After another lengthy discussion, Council accepted the staff recommendation to negotiate with Kemper but directed that the "starting point" would be to retain both 18-hole courses.
Attention at City Hall then turned to the upcoming election. After it was over, Council placed ICM Gallant on leave and Acting City Manager Lisa Goldman scheduled a special City Council meeting devoted exclusively to golf issues. Undeterred by golfers' previously expressed antipathy toward the 27-hole "concept," Kemper claimed that downsizing was the only alternative that "penciled out"-- and the only one in which it would be willing to invest funds for capital improvements. I again led the speakers expressing the golf community's commitment to preserving 36 holes. Council voted to ask Kemper to come back with more details.
Within two weeks, Ms. Goldman learned that Kemper actually did not intend to spend a dime of its own money on capital improvements. Instead, it was relying on an alleged backroom deal with ICM Gallant to use a $7+ million municipal bond backed by the City’s general fund. Ms. Goldman nixed the idea and sent Kemper and staff back to come up with a proposal that did not involve municipal financing.
She scheduled another Council meeting in April 2011 to hear Kemper's latest plan. At that meeting, Kemper finally agreed that it would operate all 36 holes -- apparently its pencil had an eraser after all -- and stated that it would fund the first round of improvements with a capital contribution of $500,000.
LESSON NO. 6: Never, ever give up.
And then Ron Cowan came out from the shadows.
IV. Securing the Future: Stopping the Swap
Back in February 2009, Council's "closed session" -- i.e., non-public -- agenda contained an item cryptically described as “conference with real property negotiators,” with the negotiating parties identified as “Village VI and Golf Course (Mif Albright).” To be discussed were “Price and terms.” Later, in the regular meeting, not aware of the secret agenda item, I decided to ask about the rumor going around the Golf Complex that politically well-connected real estate developer Ron Cowan and his Harbor Bay Isle Associates ("HBIA") wanted to trade property at North Loop Road for the land on which the Mif sat. Then-Mayor Johnson chuckled at my suggestion, saying “a lot of rumors come out of the Complex.” But Councilmember Doug deHaan later confirmed that this was no mere rumor but fact: the matter had been on that night’s agenda, just not on the open part.
LESSON NO. 7: Insist that agendas provide full disclosure to the public of what will be discussed. It is not sufficient to be technically correct if the language does not give appropriate notice to the citizens most affected.
For the next two years, Cowan laid low. But when it appeared that Council was poised to approve a lease to Kemper for the two regulation 18-hole courses, as well as a lease to the Alameda Junior Golf Association for the Mif, Cowan emerged with the proposal that quickly became known as The Swap. Under the initial version of the plan, HBIA would swap its property on North Loop Road for the Mif land plus $3 million, provided that the Mif land be rezoned for residential construction. One of the existing 18-hole courses (the Jack Clark) would be re-routed and shortened to allow for construction of a new par-three course. The City could use HBIA’s money to fund that reconfiguration, to build athletic fields on North Loop Road, or for whatever else it wanted.
I was initially intrigued by the swap concept (although not the specific proposal). My primary goal was, and always has been, securing the future of the Golf Complex. To that end, I have regularly asserted that a large cash infusion was necessary to restore infrastructure and to improve drainage. I felt that, if Cowan offered enough money to solve these problems, it might be worth the sacrifice of a compressed Jack Clark course.
At the outset, staff argued that Cowan's offer was a good deal for the City because the Mif land really wasn't worth much. This seemed wrong to me, and, when I reviewed the appraisals commissioned by Mr. Lillard, I discovered that the appraiser had been told to use erroneous assumptions that produced an undervaluation of the Mif. I brought these flaws to the attention of Council and new City Manager John Russo, who commissioned a new set of appraisals. After they came in, Cowan raised the cash portion of his offer to $7.2 million.
At the same time, Cowan and staff cleverly divided the cash offer into one chunk for the Golf Complex and another chunk for building youth sports fields. The chunk allocated to golf did little more than cover the costs of the reconfiguration intended to compensate for the loss of the Mif. The money for youth sports fields, however, appeared to fulfill a pressing need, and it was warmly welcomed by soccer and baseball supporters. Indeed, I was told that it would be selfish of me and the golf community not to go along.
LESSON NO. 8: Do not make snap judgments -- get all the facts on the table before making a decision.
In the end, I decided to oppose The Swap. For one thing, The Swap violated the principles underlying the City Charter amendment prohibiting the sale of park land for commercial purposes. Moreover, The Swap did not provide sufficient benefits to overcome the harm it would cause. It would require radically reconfiguring the existing golf courses, not to make them better for golfers but to make the Mif land available for Cowan. And the construction of a 130-unit housing development would create congestion that would complicate life for Bay Farm Island residents.
When City staff recommended that Council approve The Swap, I rallied the troops for the third time with emails and oral presentations to various golf stakeholder groups. Again, golfers and Bay Farm Island residents filled Council chambers, and Council ended up voting unanimously to reject The Swap.
LESSON NO. 9: It is possible to defeat a formidable opponent supported by City staff by being organized, and making a compelling, well-reasoned argument, without resorting to name calling.
V. Securing the Future: Selecting Greenway
Having defeated The Swap, the next step in securing the future of the Golf Complex was to find a private operator willing to invest in capital improvements in exchange for a long-term lease.
Since I believed the lack of response to the original RFP reflected flaws in its drafting rather than disinterest in the golf industry, I urged the City to try again. And when City Manager Russo told me that he was going to proceed with a new RFP, I immediately volunteered to draft it -- and even do the word processing to get it ready for release. This proved to be extremely important, as the initial draft prepared by City staff and its consultant had the same flaws as the first RFP.
My efforts were rewarded when the City received four excellent proposals from golf course operators, all four of which wanted to operate all 45 holes at the Golf Complex. Mr. Russo appointed me to a committee to evaluate the proposals and choose the top two contenders. We unanimously recommended that the City solicit proposals from Kemper and from Greenway Golf, a boutique golf firm headquartered near Modesto. Council agreed.
Then it was time to pick the winner. My choice was Greenway, which offered a plan that addressed the ongoing concerns about drainage and course playability in a way that promoted more environmentally sensitive turf management practices (reducing the amount of fertilizers and pesticides, and reducing the frequency of mowing). In addition, Greenway proposed to make the Clark course much more desirable to golfers by using the design of a world-class golf course architect.
I made the case for Greenway before the Golf Commission, which voted 3-2 to recommend Greenway, and before the selection committee appointed by Mr. Russo, where I cast the dissenting vote to a 4-1 recommendation for Kemper. I also wrote a piece supporting Greenway for the Sun and the Journal. At the same time, as chair of the Golf Commission, I made sure that other voices were heard. In particular, I developed the format for and conducted a special Golf Commission meeting at which the public could not just express opinions but ask questions of the competing bidders.
City staff recommended Kemper. As with The Swap, I found myself in the position of convincing Council to go against a staff recommendation. In my speech, my theme was that it was time to be bold rather than cautious. I reminded Council of its willingness to overrule the naysayers when it approved the Alameda Theatre and garage project and urged it to embrace innovation for the Golf Complex as well. In the end, Council voted unanimously to reject staff’s recommendation of Kemper and to select Greenway instead.
LESSON NO. 10: Don’t always pick the safe, easy choice; sometimes bold is better.
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The contract with Greenway is scheduled to commence on September 1, with Greenway planning to start with renovations to the driving range and Mif Albright course while doing planning for the Earl Fry and Jack Clark courses. I am proud to have played a major role in preserving the heritage and securing the future of the Golf Complex, and I look forward to applying what I have learned to my next challenge: serving as your Councilmember.