February 22, 2024

ASHEVILLE – More than 50 people came to a Sept. 1 community meeting at Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Community Center to meet the new operators of the historic Asheville Municipal Golf Course, Peter Dejak and Michael Bennett, where there were lots of questions and rounds of welcoming applause.
A 10-year era is coming to a close at the beloved “Muni” as it changes operators, a new phase of management that golfers hope will usher in much-needed improvements to the course, which has been allowed to “languish” over the last several years, according to golfers.
On Oct. 1, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC will take over operations of the course in a seven-year license and management agreement, a new model of partnership with the city, which assumed ownership of the course in 2006. 
Asheville City Council approved the agreement Aug. 23. 
Previous coverage: Asheville threatens lawsuit against Muni Golf Course operator over $325K in unpaid fees
Though it holds more financial risk for the city, the agreement allows the city to dictate maintenance levels for the course and retain control of maximum allowable green fee and passholder rates, according to a staff report on the operator agreement.
At the nearly two-hour, rapid fire Q&A Sept. 1, concerns about the current status of the course were overwhelming — from upkeep to an oft-contentious relationship with the current operator, Pope Golf, and preservation of the course’s history. 
But the meeting ended in several rounds of applause, with many dedicated golfers pleased to see the promise of change at the course. 
Matthew Bacoate Jr. was among those in the audience. He currently organizes the Skyview Golf Tournament at the course, the longest running Black-owned and operated professional tournament in the country. 
He took over the tournament in 2015, but has been involved with it since its inception in 1960, when he was charged with making signs and manning the master scoreboard for the inaugural year. 
He’s been advocating for change at the course for years as he watched it slide rapidly into disrepair, and said the meeting that night was the culmination of months of effort. 
Like many Muni golfers, he voiced frustrations with the current operators. 
“It came to the point, in the last three years, where Pope (Golf) just took themselves out of addressing it or planning for the type of repairs that need to be done. (They) just let the golf course languish as it is,” Bacoate said. 
More: Community fondly remembers Billy Gardenhight, Skyview Golf Association leader, activist
According to the city, its 10-year contract with Sarasota-based Pope Golf, which began Oct.1, 2012, and expires Sept. 30, has left the city facing $324,934 in outstanding lease payments.
“Throughout the duration of the Pope Golf lease, the course has steadily degraded to a point that operators are not interested in leasing the property without a significant renovation commitment from the city,” said the staff report. 
Litigation was threatened in a June 29 letter from the city attorney’s office to Keith Pope, CEO of Pope Golf.
More: White deputy who strip-searched Black man in Asheville gas station calls for new trial
More:Buncombe County MSD calls 1st defense witnesses in wrongful death trial of 20-year-old
Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, said Sept. 1 there was no change in status with Pope Golf discussions from late August. 
“I personally feel that we’ll be able to resolve the issue without suit, but that is certainly still to be determined as there are still many details that need to be discussed before anything is finalized,” Corl said. 
The first public golf course in North Carolina and the first to be integrated in the Southeast, the 18-hole golf course was designed by Hall of Fame golf architect Donald Ross and opened for play in 1927. 
Though the course is beloved to many Asheville golfers, it’s fallen into significant disrepair, they say, with weeds and bare spots plaguing much of the fairway, and needed stormwater repairs resulting in sinkholes and drainage issues. 
Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville is a partnership between Dejak and Bennett, who each also operate golf course management companies independently of one another. 
They were selected after the city issued a request for qualifications in February, which resulted in responses from 12 companies for varying types of operations agreements. 
Dejak is based in golfing hotspot Pinehurst and has over 20 years experience building, renovating and managing golf courses in the Middle Atlantic, according to Aug. 23 city news release. He is a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and owner of Signet Golf Construction and Maintenance
Dejak will be handling much of the construction and maintenance aspects of the course. He said the story and history of the course is palpable when out on the greens, which is part of the reason he and Bennett wanted to take it on. 
More: Hot Springs recognized as state’s ‘best small town for a weekend escape’
More:Asheville food, beverage festivals to put on your calendar as summer ends and fall begins
More:Merrimon Avenue? College & Patton? What are the city’s plans to expand its biking network?
“We are going to try to keep the same flavor of a Donald Ross golf course but try to create some improvements that will help with playability, maintenance and upkeep of the golf course,” Dejak said. 
One of the few Donald Ross courses left without significant renovations, Bennett said, it was that novelty and Asheville’s reputation as a tourist destination that drew them to the property. 
Bennett is a master PGA professional and president of the National Golf Course Owners Association Middle Atlantic
Prior to forming Commonwealth, Bennett was the vice president of a large golf management company with 25 properties on the East Coast and now runs Commonwealth Golf Asset Management, based in Williamsburg, Virginia. 
“His experience working in tourist driven golf markets like Myrtle Beach and Williamsburg, VA will be beneficial in Asheville as approximately 55% of players at the Muni hail from out-of-market,” the release said. 
The initial term of the agreement is for seven years, with the option to renew for an additional three years. 
Corl said the goal is to have no closures during the transition. The course has three fulltime employees and 21 part-time. All who want to stay will be kept on. 
The first day goals are simple, Dejak said: “Clean the place up.” 
“It’s up to us now,” he said. “And we’ll do it.” 
Back to School:What’s going on with Asheville, Buncombe school bus driver shortages?
Rather than a lease agreement like the one the city had with Pope Golf, the licensing and management agreement gives the city more control and lets it set the standard of operation to assure “quality maintenance practices to meet community expectations,” according to the staff report. 
Corl said the new model “puts everybody’s stake in the game,” and is a middle ground between total city control and a hands-off lease agreement. 
Under the agreement, Commonwealth will pay $1 annually to license the right to utilize the course, said Corl, which they will manage and operate. Commonwealth will execute capital projects on behalf of the city, charging a 4% management fee on capital projects exceeding $25,000.
In the case of a quarterly loss, the city will be responsible for 65% of losses and Commonwealth for 35%.
In the case of a quarterly profit, Commonwealth will earn 100% of the first $5,000 and then 55% of remaining earnings, while the city takes 45% of all earnings after the first $5,000.
It is anticipated that the course may require an operating subsidy in the first two fiscal years due to revenue loss associated with periodic closures required to complete capital projects.
More: Proposed ordinance could ban plastic bags from all grocery stores, retailers in Asheville
In Year 3 and beyond, Corl said he anticipates will turn a profit, garnering revenues of about $100,000 to $200,000 a year, with most of the city’s revenues invested back into he course. 
“Hopefully we never get into a situation similar to this in the future,” Corl said of the current condition of the course. 
The city is embarking on a $3.5 million project to initiate capital improvements and is seeking grant funding from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, along with other sources. 
More:TDA invests $5.9M more in Woodfin ‘Wave’ project, $750k in Enka Rec Park
The requested funding would cover stormwater infrastructure, water collection, tee box upgrades, and green and sand trap improvements. 
In its fiscal year 2023 capital improvement plan, the city budgeted $1.1 million for improvements to the course, which is the only funding secured for the projects. 
Capital projects planned for the course include stormwater remediation and irrigation, greens and bunker updates, regrowing grass on the fairway, tree removal, thinning and replacement, cart path repairs, installation of historical markers and clubhouse refreshers. 
Corl said work on the bunker, tree removal and cart paths could begin this winter but doesn’t expect significant stormwater improvements until fall 2023. 
Under the new operators, rates will increase slightly, Corl said, but the course will remain the last “affordable” public fee course in Asheville and the least expensive in the county. 
Corl said rate changes will not go into effect until after the end of this year, if not a few months into 2023. 
He wants the new operators to have time to “get feet on the ground” without changing programs, rates and hours that are in place, and with time to begin course improvements. 
“We want to be sure the rate is fair to the quality of play you’re getting,” Corl said. 
More: Asheville solidifies $4.4M Memorial Stadium improvements & track
Rates vary depending on time played, use of a cart and how many holes are played, but currently the maximum rate for a weekday with a cart is $38 and is $43 on a weekend. 
Under the new rates, weekday play with a cart is $45 — $40 for a city resident — and $49 on the weekend — $45 for a city resident.  
An individual season pass will go up from $1,150 to $1,450. City residents will pay $1,250. 
Corl said new rates are not significantly different but do include special rates for city residents, who currently do not receive any type of discount or special rate. 
He said Pope has the ability to propose new rates annually but has not done so since 2020, to his knowledge. 
New rates will be the same structure as they are now — a ‘maximum approved’ rate by the city — which Commonwealth is able to adjust down at their discretion to help fill tee times.  
A new facility management fee of $1 will be assessed to all non-annual passholder green fees. This fee will be directly deposited into a capital account for future capital projects at the course. 
According to the city, the course averages 41,600 starts a year, 20% of which are started by annual passholders. 
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. 


About Author

Leave a Reply