"What other people may find in poetry, I find in the flight of a good drive."
A History of the Community Center and El Conquistador Golf Property
What is now the El Conquistador Golf Courses designed by Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin, were originally established in the mid-1980’s as part of a real estate development. They were created as an asset to assist in the sale of individual homes as part of what became The Villages and Canada Hills Homeowners Associations’. The golf courses provide a significant, green open space in the middle of the community, in contrast to the desert environment. They provide enhanced views, habitat for wildlife, frequently visible to homeowners and passersby, and ready access to recreation for those who are interested in such participation. They continue to provide that value to this day.
The initial layout, created in 1982, was an eighteen-hole golf course made up of current Canada Course holes number one, two, three, six, seven, eight, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen as the front nine, named the Sunrise Nine. The back nine of the course was comprised of current Conquistador Course holes number one, seven, eight, eleven, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen, named the Sunset Nine. The resulting course was a challenging par seventy-two (72) layout. It should also be noted that both the front and back nine configurations returned to the Pro Shop starting point.
The golf course was a private Country Club whose members were, predominantly, local residents of the community surrounding the course which was named the Canada Hills Country Club. Originally, the “Pro Shop” was housed in a trailer in the area where the Community Center now sits.
The nine-hole Pusch Ridge course at the Hotel was also created in 1982, to be associated with the hotel, as were the adjacent tennis courts. The nine –hole course was originally intended to become an eighteen-hole course, but the land for the second nine could not be secured, so it remains a nine-hole course to this day.
After this initial beginning, the property was expanded in 1985 into a thirty-six hole facility. Again, they were primarily intended to serve as an asset to help sell residential real estate surrounding the golf courses. What is now the Canada Course (then named the Sunrise Course) was expanded with the addition of the currently existing holes four, five, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. The resulting eighteen-hole course all resided east of La Canada Road. Notably, the front nine layout did not return to the Clubhouse/Pro Shop.
What is now the Conquistador Course (then named the Sunset Course) was expanded with the addition of the currently existing holes two, three, four, five, six, nine, ten, twelve, and thirteen. This eighteen-hole course all resided west of La Canada Road and, like its counterpart to the east, its front nine layout did not return to the Clubhouse/Pro Shop.
Following the completion of the thirty-six hole layout, the building and amenities (tennis courts, swimming pools, etc.) that now exist as the Community Center was created as the Country Club/Pro Shop facility. It served, like the golf courses, to attract purchasers of the surrounding real estate. Like similar Country Clubs of the time, a restaurant was part of the operation to accommodate members and their guests. It is very likely this was attractive, since at that time Oro Valley was still rather remote and lacked many nearby amenities.
After the successful sale of the surrounding real estate homes, the real estate developers sold the Country Club property and the hotel. It became the property of Met Life, with a management agreement with the Sheraton El Conquistador Resort Hotel for operation of the golf courses. This arrangement allowed the Hotel operation to utilize not only the Pusch Ridge nine-hole course, but one of the golf courses in the thirty-six-hole layout, on a daily rotating basis, as a marketing benefit for its Hotel guests at an attractive fee. Country Club Members had access to the other golf course on the rotating basis. For financial reasons, outside daily fee play was also eventually made available. It should be remembered that, during this period of time, such a Resort amenity was an attractive guest-benefit in the industry. The name of the Country Club was changed to the El Conquistador Country Club to clearly link it to the El Conquistador Resort Hotel. The Golf Course names were also changed from the Sunrise Course to the Canada Course, and from the Sunset Course to the Conquistador Course.
The property remained in this configuration and management arrangement, until Met Life sold the property, including the Hotel, to CNL, a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in approximately 2002. With that change in ownership, the Sheraton brand was change to Hilton, and the Hotel name assumed that brand and management of the golf operation. Several years later, CNL sold the entire property to Ashford, another REIT, with Hilton retaining management of the golf courses, but losing the 10% interest in the property that they had held during CNL’s ownership. By about 2010, in the midst of the real estate recession, Ashford walked away from the property, leaving Met Life back in charge and holding an approximate $19 million note.
During the years from the CNL purchase, through the property’s transition back to Met Life, virtually no investment was made in either the infrastructure of the Country Club building or the golf courses. By 2008, the real estate recession had a significant impact on property values in the area, and revenues generated by both the Hotel and the golf courses. The condition of the golf courses were severely impacted, as was the condition of the Country Club facility. The golf course irrigation systems were beginning to reach their natural life-span of thirty years, and irrigation leaks, together with pump station breakdowns, were becoming common place. In addition, the asphalt cart paths on both the Country Club and Pusch Ridge courses were in significant disrepair. The use of asphalt for the cart paths had been the least expensive, but never the best choice, given Arizona’s hot summers and cold morning winter temperatures. Over time, the asphalt simply disintegrated. Consequently, with the condition of the golf courses similarly deteriorating, Club membership and daily fee play declined, all leading to a further decline in revenues.
Met Life ultimately put the property on the market for sale. It remained on the market as the real estate recession began to unwind for over two years. Finally, HSL began negotiations to purchase the property and a new chapter in its history began.
The Town Purchases the Community Center and El Conquistador Golf Property
HSL was interested in the El Conquistador Hotel Property, but not in retaining the golf courses as part of any purchase they might execute. They decided to purchase the property from Met Life, with the intention of disposing of the Country Club property and the Pusch Ridge course. Since HSL has no interest in assuming management of the golf operations, they executed a management agreement with Troon Golf, (the largest third-party golf operator in the world whose corporate office is in Scottsdale, Arizona) for that purpose.
With the above in mind, HSL began discussions in late-summer of 2014 with Oro Valley Town Manager, Greg Caton, and Mayor Satish Hirermath, to determine whether the Town was interested in purchasing the Club House facility, the two golf courses part of that facility and the Pusch Ridge course adjacent to the Hotel. These discussions were an alternative to the sale of the golf and Club House to a developer for redevelopment for homes and commercial use.
By November of 2014, discussions with the Town resulted in the matter of the Town purchasing the golf courses and Club House property be submitted to Town Council for a decision. The proposal was to operate the golf courses and convert most of the existing Club House into a Community Center for the Town. As part of the acquisition, it was proposed that an increase in the sales tax amounting to .5 of one percent be enacted by through an ordinance that explicitly dedicated that revenue to a “Community Center Fund” for the future operation and improvements to the golf courses and new Community Center.
Given the timeline for HSL to execute the purchase of the entire property, however, HSL insisted the Town make a decision concerning the purchase of the property by mid-December. Notwithstanding the timeline issue, the purchase price of $1 million, payable over three years without interest for the Club House building, 45 holes of golf (on 146 acres of irrigated turf in the middle of the Town and 40 acres of irrigated turf at the Resort), 31 tennis courts and 2 swimming pools, was compelling.
At the first Council Study Session in early December, the Town Manager and Mayor present purchasing the El Conquistador property. Part of the presentation includes recommendations to provide over $1.3 million dollars for fiscal year 2015-16 for improvements to the golf courses and existing Club House, which will become the Community Center. The Town would also contribute from the general fund $1.2 million to the Community Center Fund as start-up funding, which would be paid back over five years. It becomes immediately obvious that three Council Members, Mike Zinkin, Bill Garner and Brendan Burns, are adamantly opposed to the purchase.
Nevertheless, the agenda item to determine whether the Town will move forward with the purchase of the property is scheduled to take place at the December 17, 2014, Council Meeting.
At the Council meeting on December 17, 2014, the discussion and audience comments are contentious. The objections make it clear that Council Members Mike Zinkin, Bill Garner and Brendan Burns will oppose the purchase, which in fact they do. However, the motion passes, four to three, to purchase the property, as well as to approve the Ordinance for the new .05 percent sales tax revenue that’s dedicated to support the golf courses and Community Center.
Shortly after the vote on December 17th, the Town and HSL begin work on the Purchase Agreement for the property. That Agreement contains provisions defining what rights the Hotel will have regarding use of the golf courses and tennis facilities. It also requires the Town to continue the management agreement for the golf courses with Troon Golf, as well as what criteria the Town is required to follow if they decide to change management companies. It also requires that the term “El Conquistador” must be used as part of the name of the property so some link to the Resort is maintained. In that regard, the name of the property was changed by the Town to “El Conquistador Golf and Tennis” which it retains to this day. Finally, the Agreement defines the process the Town must follow if they decide to maintain the property, in whole or in part, as golf courses. [Click For Purchase Agreement Link]
Reaction to the Town’s purchase of the property was fairly immediate. Numerous people wrote letters-to-the-editor in the Explorer in opposition to the purchase, and used the “Blue Card” process at subsequent Council meetings to challenge the purchase decision. Council Members Mike Zinkin and Bill Garner, in particular, raised objections and continued to challenge the purchase in a variety of ways during Council meetings. A Referendum effort was begun to establish a vote of Oro Valley Citizens to overturn the Council’s action to purchase the property. While it appeared the effort to gather petition signatures for such a referendum may have been successful, the organizers of the effort had made a technical error on the petition documents, and all the petitions were rejected as invalid, and a challenge to the validity went all the way to the Arizona State Supreme Court where the Secretary of State sided with the invalidity and the challenge was found to be deficient. This development only appeared to inflame the situation. Following the failure of the Referendum effort, the Town and HSL formally sign and complete the purchase of the property in May of 2015.
The Town’s formal acquisition of the property does not end the controversy. On June 3, 2015, it was publicly announced that an effort to recall Mayor Hiremath and Council Members Joe Hornat. Mary Snyder and Lou Waters had achieved the required number of petition signatures. This recall effort was directly linked to the decision to purchase the El Conquistador property and the establishment of the dedicated sales tax for its support. However, in the November election that ensued, the incumbents defeated their challengers by obtaining approximately fifty-one percent of the vote.
The first year of operation of the golf courses under ownership by the Town proves difficult. Troon Golf, consistent with the provisions in the Purchase Agreement, continues, technically, to manage the property and many elements of the new Community Center. Troon places Ed Leinenkugel as the General Manager of El Conquistador Golf and Tennis. However, the first budget for the golf operation is developed by Town Manager, Greg Caton. That budget contains aggressive projections for Golf Memberships and the number of public golf rounds played. Given the controversy still being raised concerning the Town’s ownership of the property, these projections prove vastly over estimated.
As part of that budget proposal, it was also decided to reduce golf fees for “residents” for this fiscal period by approximately ten percent. The vast majority of golf members qualified under the Town’s definition of a “resident.” While this approach was likely intended to make acquiring new members easier, no golf member requested the fee reduction, and the decision to reduce the fees cost the Town over $63,000 in annual revenues for the 2015-16 fiscal year that they otherwise would have realized. In addition, sometime in April of 2015, golf membership dues were restructured in a manner that allowed any “Snowbird” member to resign their membership in early May, thereby paying no dues for the months of May through most of October. Then, they could rejoin as members upon their return in the fall for a processing fee of $20. Approximately 70 Snowbird members took advantage of this opportunity for obvious reasons. This decision resulted in the loss of approximately $126,000.
In fact, shortly after the November election in which the incumbent Mayor and challenged Council Members prevail, the Town Manager announces major reductions in the golf operation in an effort to dramatically reduce expenditures. He also becomes increasingly involved in directing decisions associated with the golf operation.
Even with the expenditure reductions, the golf operation ends the first the fiscal year under Town ownership with a large deficit that must be addressed with additional Town funding, in excess of the tax revenues received from the .05 cent dedicated sales tax. Obviously, given these circumstances, none of the infrastructure improvements described during the presentations made prior to the Council vote the prior December to purchase the property are implemented. Further, the expenditure reductions made in an effort to address the looming fiscal crisis do have consequences. The quality of the golf courses after the return to Bermuda fairways and greens in the spring and summer dramatically deteriorate. A number of the greens on the Canada Course, in particular, are in terrible condition. As a result, public play and Membership numbers decline, along with the revenue from these sources. Criticism of the Town’s ownership of the facility escalates.
While the budget for the golf operation developed for the second fiscal year under Town ownership is similar in many ways to the first one developed by Town Manager Caton, with aggressive Membership and public play projections, Mr. Caton leaves employment with the Town to assume a position in Colorado.
Police Chief Danny Sharp is appointed interim Town Manager in Mr. Caton’s absence. In addition, Ed Leinenkugel is replaced as the Community Center General Manager by Tom Meade. In addition, Rob DeMore, Troon Prive President and a former resident of Tucson who is familiar with the El Conquistador property, becomes more actively involved in its operation. Danny Sharp, as interim Town Manager, provides much more discretion to Troon to manage the property using the expertise they possess than his predecessor did, while still providing oversight. This approach is continued by Mary Jacobs when she assumes the Town Manager position.
With these changes, for successive years through 2019 the condition of the golf courses steadily improves, as does the fiscal picture. When initially the dedicated tax support was insufficient to sustain the Community Center Fund’s operation, by the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year, the Fund is showing a surplus of over $1 million.
During the period described above, another Council election was conducted in 2016. Incumbent Council Members Brendan Burns, Bill Garner and Mike Zinkin were challenged in the election by Rhonda Pina, Bill Rodman and Steve Solomon. The three incumbents were all opponents of the purchase of the Community Center Property, and continued as critics of the purchase in a variety of ways after the December 2014 Council decision. All three of the incumbents lose to the challengers in the August 2016 vote.
In the spring of 2017, discussion begins again with the Town Council regarding the Community Center and golf operation owned by the Town. While the fiscal condition of the property slowly continues to improve, infrastructure improvements, both to the golf courses and the Community Center facility have not be addressed. The golf course irrigation systems continue to deteriorate, and issues associated with the condition of the Community Center building and ADA access remain unattended.
The Mayor and Council decide to commission a study of the golf course operations to gather information about the best course of action for the Town. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) Consulting, Forrest Richardson & Associates (FRA), and The WLB Group are commissioned to conduct the study. NGF and FRA completed tours, meetings with key personnel and stakeholder groups, and collected insights and opinions during the Spring of 2017.
NGF and FRA completed to date meetings with Town staff, golf course staff, staff at other area golf courses, and conducted two public meetings to solicit community input. The WLB/NGF/FRA team also completed a comprehensive tour of the facility and all its components, and complete interviews of the on-site manager and golf superintendent.
On July 5, 2017, the Consultants delivered their report of 170 pages, including Appendices and Notes, to the Town. Their primary recommendation was that the Town convert the 36 holes at the Community Center to a 27-hole layout. They, also, recommended that the Pusch Ridge course be modified into what they called the “Dirty Dozen,” composed of 12 par three holes of golf.
The Consultants also provided, as part of the report, descriptions of a modified 36 hole and an 18-hole layout. It should be noted that each of these described layouts, including the 27-hole approach, revised the existing golf layouts and set aside land previously used for golf, as land available for development of some type. In addition, every proposal they made would have required extensive, additional investment by the Town to implement. [Click Here For Golf Study Report Link]
Discussions continued and new projections and recommendations were made by Troon showing the marketability of a 36 hole course was a better answer to all alternatives and did not have a price tag any different associated with the original consultants recommendations as to physical changes or operating expense.
Ultimately, the Town Council made the decision to retain the existing 36 holes as previously established. More importantly, in developing the 2018-19 budget, they included provisions for a $6 million bond, dedicated to implementing the irrigation replacement and other improvements to the golf operation and infrastructure improvements to the Community Center building.
Finally, it appeared that a decision had been made to move forward with the Community Center and golf operation that would insure its existence into the future. However, another Mayor and Council election would place a cloud over that outcome. Mayor Hiremath and Council Members Joe Hornat, Mary Snyder and Lou Waters were up for re-election in August of 2018. They would be opposed by Mayoral Candidate Joe Winfield, and Council Candidates, Melanie Barrett, Joyce Jones-Ivey and Josh Nicolson. The challengers run on a campaign primarily opposing development decisions recently made by the incumbents and Town operation of the Community Center and golf courses in their current configuration.
When the incumbent Mayor and Council Members lost to the challengers in the election in August of 2018, it became obvious that the saga of the Town owned Community Center and golf courses was not over. There would be more uncertainty to come.
The New Mayor and Council Ultimately Vote to Retain Thirty-Six Holes of Golf
Following the election of the new Mayor and Council Members in August of 2018, the Town Manager makes a decision to postpone moving forward with the $6 million bond associated with the golf courses and the Community Center that is a part of the 2018-19 fiscal year budget. The decision is made to allow the newly elected Council officials to take office and be allowed to express their desires with regard to this issue.
In September of 2018, long time MGA President John Gorman makes the decision to take a break and does not renew his membership at El Conquistador. The MGA Treasurer, Mike Schoeppach, agrees to assume the role as MGA President. This decision is based upon the fact that he has worked closely with Mr. Gorman over the past three years in the effort to preserve the 36 holes of golf at the Community Center and the Pusch Ridge course under Town ownership. It is also based upon the fact that Mr. Schoeppach has served as a volunteer with the Town in a variety of capacities since becoming a member of the Town’s Development Review Board in 2007, and is familiar with many of the Town staff and political leaders.
Prior to the new Mayor assuming his position on the Council, Mr. Schoeppach requested via email an opportunity to meet with him to introduce himself. While the new Mayor and Mr. Schoeppach had both served on Committees for the Town’s “Your Voice, Our Future” process to establish the new ten-year plan, they had not actually, previously met.
The two met for breakfast in October for approximately an hour. Mr. Schoeppach explained at the beginning of the meeting that his intention was simply to introduce himself so that might serve as a basis for future discussions between the two, not to “lobby” the new Mayor or discuss the golf course issue. After a period of time when each described their backgrounds, Mr. Winfield explained that he had initially believed at the outset of his mayoral campaign that the Town should close the golf courses. However, he explained, he had since modified his position. He explained that he now had two “interests” concerning the golf issue. The first was to “preserve property values.” The second was to “reduce the amount of tax subsidy provided to the Community Center Fund.”
At this point, Mr. Winfield asked Mr. Schoeppach to give him his thoughts about the status of the golf courses. While reluctant, since that had not been his intention for the meeting, Mr. Schoeppach explained he’d been a member at El Conquistador since the winter of 2001. He said that at the beginning the courses had been in terrible condition, but at the present, the golf courses had never been in better shape. He completely credited Troon Golf for that fact, saying that as a result, outside play had increased and golf memberships were no longer diminishing. However, he said that the constant uncertainty about the continued operation of the course under Town ownership, and even previously, was a dark cloud over the enterprise that never seemed to be resolved. He ended by stating that, if that ever was resolved, in his opinion, the property had the potential to become extremely successful. Mr. Winfield never responded to these comments other than to say he would be in touch to pursue the subject further.
After the new Mayor and Council Members were seated on the Council in November of 2018, the issue of the golf courses never became a topic of Council discussion, at least not before the public. In December Mike Schoeppach inquired of the Mayor via email as to whether he intended to follow-up regarding their initial discussion in October. Finally, in late December, the Mayor requested that Mr. Schoeppach attend a private meeting in January of 2019 with several other individuals to begin a discussion regarding the future of the golf courses. Mr. Schoeppach agreed to participate in such a meeting.
On the evening of January 22, 2019, from approximately 5:30 pm until about 7:45 pm, the meeting took place in the small conference room adjacent to the Law Department in Town Hall. Those in attendance were Mayor Winfield; Guy Cook, a Des Moines, Iowa attorney, who had a winter home on the Pusch Ridge course, is a golfer, and was President of the El Conquistador Resort Patio Homes HOA; Dennis Larson, a member of the Mayor’s congregation and former El Conquistador golf member a number of years earlier; Dick Leonard, a former El Conquistador golf member, a “Snowbird” from Minnesota where he worked at a municipal golf course as a starter, and author of several Explorer letters-to-the-Editor critical of the Town’s ownership of the golf courses; and Mike Schoeppach, El Conquistador golf member and President of the El Conquistador Men’s Golf Association (MGA).
The Mayor “facilitated” the meeting. He began by saying that this was not a “confidential” meeting or in any way “secret” and those in attendance were free to share what was said during the meeting with anyone they felt they needed to, in any manner they deemed appropriate. He explained that he had invited those present because, either during or after his campaign, each individual had spoken to him about the Town’s golf courses and had presented themselves as knowledgeable and reasonable in their interactions. He hoped this meeting could be the beginning of a process to find some common ground whereby the fate of the golf operation would be acceptable to the Town’s citizens and meet the interests of as many as possible.
The Mayor then requested that each participant provide a brief introduction of themselves, which each proceeded to do.
Next, the Mayor explained that he was not a golfer and didn’t know very much about the sport. He said that at the outset of his campaign he initially believed that all 36 holes of golf should be closed by the Town. He explained that he had been a member of the Town’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board at the time the courses were being considered for purchase by the Town Council and the Board had recommended against the purchase. When the Council went ahead with the purchase, the Chairperson of the Board resigned, as did he.
The Mayor then stated that he no longer held the position that the golf courses should be closed. Instead, he repeated that he now had two interests, and repeated the same interests as he’d provided to Mr. Schoeppach during their earlier breakfast meeting; to protect property values, and to reduce the amount of tax subsidy going to the Community Center Fund.
At this point, the Mayor asked who would like to begin to discuss their perceptions. Guy Cook agreed to start. Mr. Cook stated that he believed the decision by the Town to purchase the Community Center property was the correct one, though the process used should have been more inclusive and he saw the property as a valuable community asset. He explained that he had approached HSL about taking over the Pusch Ridge operation and was willing to explore whether the adjacent homeowners would be willing to contribute to that operation. That discussion had moved so far as for Troon to provide an estimated cost to HSL for their continued management of the property under a lease from the Town by HSL. However, Mr. Cook explained that since the new Council had not authorized such an arrangement, things had not progressed beyond that point.
Mr. Larson was next to provide his perspective. He repeated that he was a golfer, a previous member at El Conquistador and other “Country Clubs,” and was familiar with the financial situation at the Community Center, because he had obtained the financial statements from the Town associated with it. He conceded that the condition of the golf courses had vastly improved under Troon’s management.
Mr. Larson then explained that he believed the model at El Conquistador was unique in the country to any other municipal golf operation. He said the model was actually a Semi-private Country Club model, where there is a membership base, as well as a public daily fee component. He stated that Oro Valley was the only municipality, as far as he was able to determine, that was attempting to operate such a model.
Mr. Leonard next provided his perspective. He disclosed that he was a Snow Bird, living in Oro Valley for six months and in Minnesota the other six months. He said he got a job at his municipal golf course in Minnesota about six years ago and began to play some golf. He stated that “Municipal golf got into my blood – I really love it.” He made some observations about why municipal golf is so important and that El Conquistador should emulate that model. From this point on in the meeting, Mr. Leonard did not significantly participate.
Mr. Schoeppach was the last to provide his perspective. He explained his role at El Conquistador as President of the Men’s Golf Association, and his belief that the courses were in the best condition he’d experience in his 18 years of membership. He said that Membership dues, cart/trail fees, and merchandise/food and beverage purchases represented $1.26 million annually in revenue to the Town. He concluded by saying that the cost of Golf Membership was certainly negotiable, if it was possible to have a discussion about what needs to be done to ensure the continued operation of the golf operation at the Community Center.
At this point, the Mayor began to bring the meeting to a close, since it was after 7:30. Mr. Schoeppach stated he hoped it would be possible to have, at least, one more meeting of the group. The Mayor seemed in favor of the suggestion and asked if anyone believed someone should be added to the group. Mr. Schoeppach said he thought a representative from Troon, such as Rob DeMore, would be a valuable addition who could be a good source of information about the industry. The Mayor responded that, “Yes, Rob is going to be at our January 28th Study Session,” and wrote his name down in his notes. Mr. Larson suggested adding the Director of Golf at The Views Golf Course to those in attendance, which Mr. Cook also endorsed, and the Mayor wrote his name down. The Mayor encouraged everyone to attend the January 28th Council Study Session, describing the purpose for that Session, and stating that no public input or questions would be taken at that Session. However, he said a second Council Study Session would be conducted on February 20th following a brief Council meeting, at which time public input and questions would be allowed.
The Mayor concluded by thanking everyone for attending and saying he had been taking notes of the meeting that, while it would likely take several days, he would transcribe and provide a copy to all who had attended.
Following the meeting, Mr. Schoeppach communicated via email with Mr. Larson. He asked him to clarify his statement at the meeting that no other municipality in the country was attempting to implement the kind of golf operation that had both a membership and a public play component. In the email, Mr. Schoeppach identified several municipal examples across the country that appeared to be doing so. Mr. Larson never responded to his email. After approximately a week, Mr. Schoeppach provided a copy of the email he had sent to Mr. Larson to all participants, with the explanation that he had received no response.
Participants at the meeting never received a copy of the notes Mayor Winfield took at the meeting that he said participants would be provided.
At the Council Study Session on January 28, 2019, the Mayor and Council received a briefing by Town Manager Mary Jacobs regarding the golf courses and Community Center owned by the Town. Part of that briefing included a review of the Golf Study that had been commissioned by the previous Council, including the various options of the 36 holes at the Community Center and the Pusch Ridge course. The Mayor and Council were also briefed about why, generally, none of the options presented by the Consultants had been adopted and the existing 36-hole model had been continued. No public testimony was accepted at the Session. It was obvious based upon their statements at the meeting, however, that Mayor Winfield and Vice-Mayor Barrett questioned the appropriateness of continued town ownership of golf. An article on February 13, 2019, written by The Explorer reporter Kathleen Kunz documented their comments. The article also described the history of the Town’s ownership of the property and concerns by property owners that closing the courses would adversely affect their property values.
At the regular Council Session on February 20, 2019, the public was allowed to address the Council regarding the golf course issues, as Mayor Winfield had suggested would be the case at the January 22nd meeting. There were 29 people, all but one Oro Valley residents, who addressed the Council during the Study Session dealing with the golf course issues. A majority of those who spoke did so in favor of retaining the golf courses owned by the Town.
Following these two Council Sessions, several months passed with no action or consideration given to the golf course issue by the Council, at least in public. By April, those who were in support of retaining the Town-owned golf courses decided to take the initiative.
The leadership of the El Conquistador Men’s Golf Association and Women’s Golf Committee created a “Steering Committee” composed of representatives from each of those two groups, as well as representatives from The Villages, Canada Hills and Pusch Ridge Patio Homes Homeowners’ Associations. Later, representatives from a new organization, Oro Valley Thrives, were asked to join the Committee.
The purpose for the Steering Committee was to develop a strategy that would result in the Mayor and Council reaching a decision to retain the Town-owned golf courses in their current configuration and fund the necessary infrastructure investments to insure they were sustainable into the future. It was determined by the group that they should take actions that would address the two interests that Mayor Winfield had defined: protect property values, and; reduce the amount of tax support required by the Community Center Fund.
With respect to the issue of protecting property values, representatives from the Canada Hills Master HOA agreed to commission a Study by a qualified firm to describe the impact on property values adjacent to the golf courses, as well as within the Town, if the courses associated with the Community Center were abandoned. A firm to conduct the Study was ultimately identified and the Study was completed. It would subsequently be submitted to the Mayor and Council, as described later.
The Committee also began an analysis to develop a proposal to address the issue of reducing the amount of tax support required by the Community Center Fund. This proposal would include a component whereby the HOA’s adjacent to the two golf courses would make contributions to the Town for the operation of the courses, thereby reducing the amount of tax support required. Such a proposal could be used to move the Council to address the question of the future status of the golf courses, given that things appeared to be stalled.
By the middle of April, 2019, the Committee had created a proposal to begin discussions with representatives from the Town. On April 23, 2019 Mayor Winfield, Vice-Mayor Barrett, Council Member Rodman and Town Manager Mary Jacobs were sent a letter of invitation to attend two meetings with representatives of the Steering Committee. The first meeting was scheduled for the evening of April 29, 2019, from 5:30 until 7:30 pm. The purpose for this meeting, as explained in the letter each potential participant received was “to provide you with a copy of a Proposal developed by the ECMGA and the Presidents of the Homeowners Associations that are adjacent to the two Golf Courses at the Community Center and the Golf Course at Pusch Ridge that are owned by the Town of Oro Valley.”
The second meeting was scheduled for the evening of May 6, 2019, also from 5:30 until 7:30 pm. The purpose for this meeting was to answer any questions the participants might have had regarding the Proposal reviewed at the first meeting. Both meetings were scheduled to be held in the Sunset Room at the Community Center.
Mayor Winfield, Council Member Rodman and Town Manager Jacobs accepted the invitation to attend. Vice-Mayor Barrett declined the invitation, stating in an email reply that the Town would be conducting a thorough public process regarding the issue of the Town-owned golf courses.
One other individual was invited to attend the two meetings and agreed to do so; Mike Zinkin, who continued to be publicly critical of the Town’s purchase and continuing ownership of the Community Center property.
At the meeting on April 26, 2019, the Proposal developed by the Steering Committee was reviewed. An advanced copy had not been previously provided to the participants identified above. It was explained that the Proposal was not a “demand,” but a place to begin the discussion. Each of the elements of the Proposal were reviewed with participants. These included discussions being implemented to lease the Pusch Ridge Course to HSL (consistent with the description that Guy Cook, who had become a member of the Steering Committee, had provided to the Mayor at the January 22, 2019 meeting), saving the Town an estimated $218,000, annually. Specific current expenditure items were identified, resulting in Town savings of over $190,000. Membership Dues would be increased by ten percent and outside play increased, to generate approximately $340,000 more revenue. And, an Agreement would be established between the Town, and The Villages and Canada Hills Master HOA’s that would provide $200,000 per year to the Town for the support of the golf courses, to protect their property values. These provisions, if implemented, would result in an annual reduction in tax support to the Community Center Fund of an estimated $940,000.
At the end of the meeting, it was requested that the participants agree to attend the second scheduled meeting to more completely discuss the Proposal and address their questions. Initially, Mayor Winfield had expressed the belief that the second meeting would probably not be necessary. However, he was the first to agree he would attend, and all the other participants agreed to do so as well.
The day before the May 6, 2019, meeting, Mayor Winfield advised Mr. Schoeppach via email, without explanation, that he would not be at the meeting the next day.
All other participants were in attendance at the May 6th meeting. However, Mr. Zinkin explained at the outset of the meeting that he needed to leave shortly after 6:00 pm, due to another commitment, which he did.
Questions concerning the various elements of the Proposal were discussed and addressed. The Town Manager explained that most of the elements were not new concepts to the Town, such as the potential lease of the Pusch Ridge Course to HSL, which Mr. Schoeppach acknowledged. She did agree, however, that the concept of the HOA’s making contributions to support the facility was new, and a “potential game changer.”
Discussions regarding the Proposal made by the MGA/WGC, and HOA leaders did not immediately generate negotiations that resulted in resolving the issues associated with the Town-owned golf courses. After a number of weeks passed with no follow-up from Town representatives to the meetings of April 26, and May 6, 2019, Steve Jones, on behalf of the Canada Hills Master HOA, arranged a meeting with reporter Kathleen Kunz to review the Property Values Study that the HOA had commissioned and was now completed. That Study had been submitted to the Mayor, Town Council Members, and Town Manager Mary Jacobs. The article Ms. Kunz wrote appeared in The Explorer on May 29, 2019, and described the conclusions reached in the Study.
In an effort to further press for some response to the MGA/WGC and HOA proposal that had been made, a meeting was arranged through the Canada Hills, Village 19 HOA for their HOA leadership to discuss the golf issues with Mayor Winfield and Town Manager Mary Jacobs. The meeting was held the evening of June 6, 2019. Besides the Mayor and Town Manager, Village 19 HOA President was in attendance with their Treasurer, Secretary, two Village 19 Members at large, and Steve Jones, Vice-President of the Canada Hills Master HOA.
At this meeting, the Village 19 HOA leaders provided an extensive presentation to the Mayor and Town Manager. They reviewed the initial Town purchase of the property; explained the fact that the Community Center and Golf Courses were the least tax-subsidized of all the other Parks and Recreation amenities/venues; described the impact of closing the golf courses on the surrounding property values, as examined in the Study commissioned by the Canada Hills Master HOA; pressed the Mayor and Town Manager to explain what alternative plans were being explored regarding re-purposing the golf course land if the courses were closed; and described the “down side” of closing the golf courses to the Oro Valley community. It appears that this meeting was the first time in a public setting that Mayor Winfield described his alternative for re-purposing the golf course land by turning the acreage into what he described as “linear parks.” When he was pressed to explain the concept further, he declined to do so, and could not or would not provide those in attendance an example of the concept that existed in any other setting.
In early summer, the Mayor re-established a Commission that hadn’t existed for decades in the Town. The new Budget and Finance Commission was composed of five Town citizens, one woman and four men. Very shortly after it began operating, on June 18, 2019, it started to examine the issue of the Town-owned golf courses. Some observers speculated that its real purpose was to provide “cover” to the Mayor and Vice-Mayor regarding any decision they might make to reduce or eliminate golf. It was also immediately apparent that the new Commission had been provided very limited orientation regarding the standard operating procedure for such Town bodies. For example, their meetings were initially not started with the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the standard procedure for all other Town Boards and Commissions. It wasn’t until a member of the audience suggested, at about the third Commission meeting, that this practice be implemented, which the Chairman said was fine with him. From that point forward, the meetings were called to order in that fashion. In addition, the Chairman seemed very perplexed and annoyed when members of the audience began attending the meetings and submitting the standard “Blue Card” to address the Commission on a particular issue. Initially, the practice was not allowed. Over time, it was permitted.
Because Town representatives still made no attempt to engage in further discussions with representatives of the Golf Members and the HOAs, on June 25, 2019, Mike Schoeppach and Steve Jones had a meeting with Kathleen Kunz and editor Logan Burtch-Buss of The Explorer. The purpose of that meeting was for Mr. Schoeppach and Mr. Jones to review the actions they had been taking to address the Town-owned golf course issues, and to review the proposal they had provided to Town representatives regarding contributions to the Town from the HOA’s to support retention of the courses and Community Center. A copy of the HOA proposal was provided to the editor and reporter. The meeting lasted more than an hour.
The following week an article appeared in The Explorer that described the process and the HOA proposal. An “editorial” by Butch-Buss and article written by Ms. Kunz appeared in The Explorer on July 10, 2019. They described the content of the proposal that had been made to Town representatives. Not long after that article appeared in The Explorer, a public process for determining the future of the Town-owned golf courses was finally announced by Town officials.
After the June 18, 2019, Budget and Finance Commission meeting the subject of the future of the Town-owned golf courses became a standard subject of discussion at their meetings. Increasingly, Oro Valley citizens became aware of this fact, and began regularly attending the meetings. At the July 16, 2019, Commission meeting, the Chairman stated at the beginning of the meeting that a number of “Blue Cards” had been submitted by members of the audience to address the Commission. However, he said, no “Blue Card” speakers would be allowed, since the issue of golf was on the agenda. During the meeting, Mayor Winfield announced to those in attendance that there would be a “public hearing” with respect to the golf issue on July 24, 2019, and he encouraged citizens to attend.
The Council Special Session was conducted on July 24, 2019, for the purpose of providing public comment to the Council concerning the future status of the Town-owned golf courses. Town Manager Jacobs had been encouraged by HOA and other leaders to schedule the Session in a larger venue than Town Hall, due to their belief that attendance would be well beyond the capacity of Town Hall to handle the projected crowd. Ultimately, the meeting was moved to the Church of the Nazarene.
The Special Council Session on July 24, 2019 lasted for over three hours and thirty minutes. Well before the Session began at 6:00 pm, the Church Sanctuary was filled well beyond capacity, and two other rooms held the overflow crowd who had video/audio access to the proceedings. Media estimates of the crowd in attendance exceeded 800 people. Following a presentation of golf options and financial estimates by Town Manger Jacobs, public testimony was allowed via the standard Council “Blue Card” process, limiting each speaker to three minutes. Fifty people addressed the Council. The overwhelming majority of the public comments advocated that the Town retain the existing 36-hole configuration at the Community Center. Speakers ran the gamut from those who were members at El Conquistador Golf and Tennis; to citizens who lived adjacent to the courses and were concerned about their property values; to those who had never played golf, didn’t live on the courses, but valued the open space they provided; and two, young, female high school students on their school’s golf team who played and practiced at the El Conquistador courses.
Following all of the public comment, and brief comments from several Council Members, the Mayor read a statement that, given its content, he had obviously written prior to the meeting. His comments stood in stark contrast to the tenor of the vast majority of the public who spoke before him. It appeared as if he had not heard what the members of the public who were present had to say who, by then, were exiting the facility, given the lateness of the hour.
Because a number of citizens who had submitted “blue cards” to speak at the Council Session on July 24, 2019, were unable to do so due to the length of the meeting, they were provided the opportunity to speak at the Council Meeting the following week on July 31, 2019. Forty-three people took the opportunity at that time to address the Mayor and Council. As was the case at the meeting on July 24th, the vast majority of these speakers were in favor of the Council keeping all 36 holes of golf at the Community Center.
Following a recess, Mayor Winfield directed Town staff to work with the Budget and Finance Commission to get one set of numbers for Troon financials as a starting point and clarify the total number of acres for each of the Town’s golf courses. The Mayor then made a motion that was seconded by Vice-Mayor Barrett “for staff to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) from qualified landscape architects to perform the following scope of work: proposed design to re-purpose golf holes, specifically, representative holes from the La Canada and El Conquistador golf courses, as natural desert open space with minimal maintenance consistent with the current deed restrictions. The proposal should include estimates of the costs to complete the proposed design, the time to implement the proposed design and the yearly maintenance costs associated with the proposed design.” The motion passed 4 to 3, with Councilmembers Pina, Rodman and Solomon opposed.
Next, Councilmember Solomon made a motion which was seconded by Councilmember Rodman “that the Town continues to operate the 36 holes of golf of both the El Conquistador and La Canada courses along with the Community Center and re-initiate discussions between the Town, homeowners and HSL for an acceptable solution for the Pusch Ridge golf course.” No vote was taken on this motion, because a motion to table it was made by Vice-Mayor Barrett and seconded by Councilmember Nicolson which passed 4 to 3, again with Councilmembers Pina, Rodman and Solomon opposed. The Mayor then recessed the meeting at 9:53 p.m.
Through August, 2019, efforts were organized to direct emails and letters to the Mayor and Councilmembers in support of retaining thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center. These efforts continued into the fall. Early in September, leaders of the Oro Valley Thrive initiative began selling “Green Shirts” to supporters of the golf courses with the message “Save Thirty-Six Holes … Save Oro Valley.” It is estimated that well over three hundred shirts were purchased by those supporting the effort. At events, Budget and Finance Commission and Council meetings through November of 2019, the overwhelming majority of those attending wore the shirts in support of the effort to retain the thirty-six holes of golf.
Following the second public hearing on golf at the Council meeting on July 31, 2019, no further discussion took place regarding golf until the August 20, 2019, Budget and Finance Commission. At that Commission meeting, Town Manager Mary Jacobs and Troon Vice-President Rob DeMore made presentations to the Commission members that covered the Golf Study the Town had commissioned in 2018, and the status of the operation over the years the Town had owned the property. Steve Jones representing the Canada Hills Master HOA also addressed the Commission and outlined the proposal that had been made to Town representatives in late April and early May that would result in contributions being made by the HOAs to support the golf operation and protect property values. At the end of this meeting, a motion was made and passed unanimously by the Commission to have “representatives or a committee” begin discussions immediately with representatives of the HOAs regarding this issue.
Throughout the discussion about whether to retain thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center, the issue of the water rate charged by the Town’s Water Utility for irrigating the golf courses surfaced. Soon after the Town purchased the property, water for irrigating the courses at the Community Center was transitioned from the use of potable water to reclaimed water. The reclaimed water was purchased from Tucson and the infrastructure for the delivery of the product to not only the thirty-six holes at the Community Center, but also to the Vistoso, The Views and Stone Canyon golf courses, and other commercial customers had been established by the Town’s Water Utility District. The Pusch Ridge Course, also owned by the Town, continued to use potable water for irrigation, because the infrastructure was never extended to that property to allow the use of reclaimed water.
Obviously, from an environmental standpoint, using reclaimed water for the described users was important. The use of potable water for these purposes negatively impacted the area aquifer, while using reclaimed water actually served to help recharge the aquifer. However, the product was more expensive than potable water for these customers, particularly when the “surcharge” was added by the Water Utility to eventually pay for the cost of the required infrastructure to deliver the product.
Two issues associated with the reclaimed water issue surfaced during the discussion concerning retaining thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center. The first issue was that the high cost charged by the Town’s Utility District to irrigate the Town-owned thirty-six holes put that property at a distinct economic disadvantage in comparison to other Municipal golf courses in the area and, in fact, state-wide. This fact was uncontroverted. For example, the golf courses owned by the City of Tucson were provided deep discounts in the water fees they paid to the Tucson Water District for their reclaimed water. That fact was also the case with the County-owned Crooked Tree Golf Course, because Pima County also, significantly subsidized their water costs. As a result, the “bottom line” for these publicly owned properties looked considerably better, just because of the fees they paid to irrigate their courses, compared to the Town-owned property. In fact, across Arizona it was determined to be common practice for Municipal- owned golf courses to be provided varying forms of subsidy for the reclaimed irrigation water they purchased from Public Utilities. If a similar “subsidy” were provided to the Town-owned courses, it would significantly reduce the amount of tax support required by the golf courses. The Town-owned courses were also at an economic disadvantage to the Oro Valley Country Club Course which, because of the period when it had been established, continues to use potable water for irrigation through the use of the water provided by that property’s private well, which one might argue is not particularly environmentally sensitive.
Regardless of the facts cited above, the Town’s Water Utility District refused to consider any initiative that might address the issue. They argued that it would be unfair to provide a subsidy to the Town-owned golf courses, when all reclaimed water customers were currently paying the same rate. It ultimately became apparent that, even though the Water Utility is a public entity, it operates in an independent fashion with respect to the Mayor and Town Council.
A second issue regarding water rates surfaced during the discussion of the retention of thirty-six holes of golf owned by the Town. That issue related to the alternative of repurposing the golf course property using the option suggested by the Mayor to convert the property to “linear trails.” If, in fact, that option were implemented, even as it related to keeping eighteen holes of golf and converting the other eighteen holes consistent with the Mayor’s proposal, an unintended consequence was discovered. The impact of that action would have a significant, negative impact upon the Town’s Water Utility District. It would cause them to lose significant revenue from the reclaimed water rates approaching $1 million, annually, currently being paid by the Town’s golf courses. It was ultimately conceded that, if that were to transpire, other user rates, both commercial and residential, would need to be raised to compensate for the revenue losses. This action would have an obvious, negative economic impact upon these customers.
In the end, because of the decision made by the Mayor and Council in October of 2019, the second issue described above was avoided. The first issue concerning the relative economic competitiveness of the Town-owned golf courses with other golf courses owned by Municipalities due to water rate subsidies has, to this day, never been addressed.
On September 17, 2019, the Budget and Finance Commission again took up the golf issue. Troon representative Rob DeMore was present via telephone and reviewed a Power Point presentation for the Commission regarding the golf courses. However, technical difficulties did not permit Mr. DeMore to complete his presentation. At the “Call to the Audience” at the end of the meeting, four citizens addressed the Commission in support of the Town retaining thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center. No citizens spoke in opposition to this position.
There was a public hearing on the golf issues at the Council Meeting on October 2, 2019. The Council Chamber was packed to capacity with a significant majority of those in attendance wearing the green “Oro Valley Thrives’ tee shirts. The second item on the agenda dealt with the golf issue. A presentation was made by Town Manager Mary Jacobs and Interim Chief Financial Officer Kevin Artz outlining a “Town Council Action Feasibility Analysis,” including a “Financial Summary” whereby the HOAs would make financial contributions for golf operations. Following the presentation, eleven citizens spoke in favor of retaining thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center and two spoke in opposition.
After the public testimony, Mayor Winfield made a motion that was seconded by Councilmember Nicolson. The motion selected the option to retain thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center. It stated the model would operate as “a municipal public course with a membership model that welcomes outside play on both courses.” The motion also stated that “measurable and time sensitive targets for revenue, rounds played and memberships” would be established; “budgeted golf operations loss levels” were described for four fiscal years;” “a business development plan to grow membership to 275 members and reach 40K rounds of outside play by FY 21/22” would be coordinated; membership revenue would be increased by “10% by January 1, 2021;” an RFP would be issued “to obtain bids from regional or national companies experienced in managing municipal golf courses for operation of the 36 holes;” capital improvements would be accomplished on a “pay as you go basis” from the Community Center Fund; begin developing a plan “for a downstairs bar and grill to cost no more than $500,000,” and; “The 36 hole option is contingent upon reaching an agreement on the proposed HOAs financial contributions….” At this point, Mayor Winfield recessed the meeting for nine minutes.
(It should be noted that all of the “metrics” described in the motion passed on October 2, 2019, related to the establishment of a municipal public course, the Membership target of 275 Members, reaching 40,000 rounds of outside play, and increasing Membership revenue were actually met or exceeded by the end of March of 2021, a year before the 2021-2022 fiscal year threshold established in the motion.)
Following the recess, a series of amendments were made, discussed and accepted making technical changes to the main motion. Ultimately, a motion that contained these changes was made that also included a provision to “suspend the RFP for the landscape architect” to establish the estimated costs for repurposing the golf property which the Council had previously directed Town Staff to establish. The amended motion was passed 6 to 1, with Vice-Mayor Melanie Barrett voting “No.”
Just prior to and immediately after the Council vote on October 2, 2019, when the Mayor and Council confirmed that 36 holes of golf at the Community Center would be continued into the future, a Wall Street Journal reporter was in Oro Valley. He was writing a story about golf courses closing across the country. As part of that work, he requested an interview with Men’s Golf Association President, Mike Schoeppach to obtain his views about what was taking place with the Town-owned golf courses. The interview was conducted, and the reporter asked if Mr. Schoeppach would give him a tour of the golf courses, which was provided in the afternoon, after the interview. During this tour of the courses, the reporter took video footage which was later processed into a video for by the Journal as a companion to their print story. [Link to WSJ Video]
The last Budget and Finance Commission meeting of any consequence regarding the golf issue took place on October 15, 2019. At this meeting, the Chairman made a motion regarding the golf issue that contained three elements. The first element stated that if the financial target set forth at the October 2, 2019, Council meeting were not met by the facility after three years that the HOAs would be responsible for making up the difference; that the tax support for the facility be limited to $750,000 per year, and; all capital expenditures be on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. The second element was that if the HOAs won’t or can’t make up the differences described in the first element, that the Canada Course be closed, and the remaining course be capped at $500,000 of tax support. The last element stated that one half of the half-cent sales tax dedicated to the Community Center Fund be redirected to pay for the unfunded liability in the Pension Fund. At that point in the meeting, the Chairman recessed the meeting for fifteen minutes. When the meeting was reconvened, the motion made by the Chairman died for the lack of a second.
The next Council meeting took place on November 6, 2019. Town Manager Mary Jacobs and interim Chief Financial Officer Kevin Artz provided a summary of the golf agenda item from the October 2, 2019 meeting; options for paying for the continued operation of thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center; and the staff recommendation regarding that matter. Three residents spoke in support of the agenda item, with no resident speaking in opposition.
Mayor Winfield made a motion, which was seconded by Vice-Mayor Barret “to approve funding for all Golf Course repairs and improvements on a pay as you go basis from the Community Center Fund. . . .” The motion called for irrigation replacement and repairs to first be done on the Conquistador course, followed by the Canada course; followed by Golf Clubhouse and restaurant improvements, with the Overlook Restaurant operation only supporting golf; reduced hours and labor costs for food service, consistent with a municipal golf course; issuance of an RFP for an outside vendor to operate the reduced golf food service, and; retaining a $100,000 minimum in the Community Center Fund for a reserve.
Councilmember Solomon made a motion, which was seconded by Councilmember Pina to amend the main motion by approving the staff’s recommendation regarding funding for the golf course improvements and the Community Center. The staff recommendation had been to use a combination of an Intra-Fund loan, bonding, and some pay as you go funding. This motion to amend failed to receive a majority when Mayor Winfield, Vice-Mayor Barrett and Councilmember Nicolson voted no, and Councilmember Jones-Ivey abstained.
After discussion, Mayor Winfield made a motion that was seconded by Vice-Mayor Barrett to postpone the main motion to the next Special Session Town Council Meeting scheduled for November 20, 2019. The motion passed six to one, with Councilmember Solomon abstaining.
At the Special Session on November 20, 2019, the funding process for the golf courses and Community Center was continued. Town Manager Mary Jacobs and Interim Chief Financial Officer Kevin Artz reviewed the funding options and staff recommendation that had been presented at the November 6, 2019 Council meeting. Following discussion by Councilmembers, Mayor Winfield and Vice-Mayor Barrett withdrew the main motion they had made at the November 6, 2019, Council meeting. Following this action, Mayor Winfield made a motion, seconded by Vice-Mayor Barrett, as follows:
“to approve all golf course repairs and improvements to be funded on a pay as you go basis from the Community Center Fund. No bonding will be undertaken for community center improvements. Once the selected course operator is in place the investment sequence will be as follows: Conquistador irrigation and repairs completed in 2021. Canada course irrigation and repairs completed in 2022. Golf Clubhouse and restaurant improvements scheduled for 2021. Staff will develop an RFP for competitive bids to operate the two town courses and review with Council. Town staff will issue an RFP for irrigation design and construction for both the Conquistador and Canada courses. The Town will manage the Overlook restaurant operation to support golf and reduce current losses. Food service hours and menu offerings are to be consistent with the needs of a municipal golf course. Oro Valley will retain a $100,000 minimum reserve in the Community Center Fund.”
Following discussion by Councilmembers, a motion was made by Councilmember Solomon and seconded by Councilmember Rodman to amend the main motion by substituting the main motion with the following:
“Proceed with the finalized design of the golf course irrigation and improvements to begin by the summer of 2020 and to complete those repairs and improvements by the end of 2021. To bond for the Community Center and golf clubhouse improvements and begin those improvements by the end of 2020. To have Town staff and consultants report back to the council regarding the different options for the restaurant and have public input on those options before a decision is made. To fund the golf and irrigation improvements through the Community Center fund and if necessary through a loan from the General Fund savings in excess of the 25% General fund reserve policy which would be paid back through the Community Center fund over the next years.”
Following Council discussion, the amended motion failed three to four when Mayor Winfield, Vice-Mayor Barrett, Councilmembers Jones-Ivey (via telephone) and Nicolson voted “No.”
Again following Council discussion, Mayor Winfield and Vice Mayor Barrett requested a voluntary, editorial amendment to one sentence of their main motion. Then, Mayor Winfield moved, and Vice-Mayor Barrett seconded to approve the following motion as amended:
“All golf course repairs and improvements to be funded on a pay as you go basis from the Community Center Fund. No bonding will be undertaken for community center improvements. Once the selected course operator is in place the investment sequence will be as follows: Conquistador irrigation and repairs completed in 2021. Canada course irrigation and repairs completed in 2022. Golf Clubhouse and restaurant improvements scheduled for 2021. Staff will develop an RFP for competitive bids to operate the two town courses and review with Council. Town staff will issue an RFP for irrigation design and construction for both the Conquistador and Canada courses. The Town will manage the Overlook restaurant operation to support golf and reduce current losses. Food service hours and menu offerings are to be consistent with the needs of a municipal golf course. Oro Valley will retain a $100,000 minimum reserve in the Community Center Fund.”
Following some discussion amongst the Council, the above motion passed four to three, with Councilmembers Pina, Rodman and Solomon voting “No.” This phase of the process had come to a conclusion.
Several month passed. Steve Jones and Greg Kishi, respectively on behalf of the Canada Hills Master and The Villages HOAs periodically interacted with Town Manager Mary Jacobs, via email and telephone, in an effort to get discussions started between the parties to establish a formal Agreement governing the HOAs’ contribution of $125,000 per year for five years to support the golf courses, consistent with commitments made during the October and November 2019 Council meeting deliberations. While these interactions were always cordial and positive, the HOA leaders were not able to get such discussions started.
Finally, in late February of 2020, the HOA representatives decided to utilize the approach that had initiated discussions with the Town regarding the golf courses back in April of 2019. They made their own proposal to the Town Manager for an Agreement to govern the HOA contributions. Very shortly after the Town representatives received the initial HOA proposal for such an Agreement, discussions began. However, the process proved laborious. Following several, initial face-to-face discussions between the parties in March and April of 2020, the exchanges devolved into email exchanges of proposals and counter-proposals, primarily between the attorneys representing the parties.
The Canada Hills Master HOA came to general agreement regarding the ultimate language of the Agreement after several months of “discussions,” primarily via email and telephone exchanges. However, The Villages HOA had more complex issues to resolve. Because they had a specific Agreement with the Town regarding the status of the golf course holes south of Lambert Lane that are part of the Canada Course and contained within their HOA, they were cautious about protecting their interests as they related to the Agreement with the Town to provide the contributions to support the golf courses and protect their HOA Members’ property values. As a consequence, attorneys representing their HOA and Town attorneys made numerous language proposals and counter-proposals to satisfy their mutual interests in this regard.
Finally, after four months of discussions and countless exchanges, an Agreement was executed to govern the contributions made by the HOAs and the obligations the Town was responsible to meet for such contributions to be initiated and continued. [LINK TO HOA/TOWN CONTRIBUTION AGREEMENT]
This was the final step that was required to close the chapter that resulted in the Town continuing to operate thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center. During the entire process, the vast majority of the public input received by the Mayor and Councilmembers regarding this issue, whether through public testimony, emails, letters, or personal contact was overwhelmingly in support of retaining thirty-six holes of golf, with only a handful in opposition. Further, the diverse number of voices on the side of retaining golf far outweighed the few, “usual suspects” in opposition. Those in support of golf were also diverse in another way. Some played golf. Some lived close to the courses. But others were residents who had never played golf and didn’t live close to the courses. They simply valued the open space in the middle of the Town and viewed the existence of the golf courses as a valuable community asset that attracted visitors and supported the economy and local businesses. Apparently, this messages led the Mayor and members of the Council to take the action they ultimately took. At least for the time being.
The Current Status of the Town-Owned Golf Courses
In January of 2020, the Canada Hills Master and The Villages HOA leaders struggled to get Town officials to respond to their efforts to begin discussions to establish the HOA/Town Agreement for the HOA Contributions required as a result of Council action in October and November of 2019. During that effort, the Town moved forward with the issuance of an RFP to select a golf operator for the Town-owned golf courses as directed by the Mayor and Council as part of the October and November Council deliberations. Representatives of both the Men’s Golf Association and Women’s Golf Committee at El Conquistador Golf strongly encouraged Town officials to select Troon as the operator for the facility. They cited the fact that Troon had, over the last three years, substantially improved the financial status and course conditions of the operation, and succeeded in reducing the amount of tax support required for the facility. These efforts of support for Troon were simply dismissed by Town officials.
Behind the scenes, the Men’s Golf Association President encouraged Troon representatives to respond to the issued RFP. Initially, they were extremely reluctant to do so, citing the belief that they shouldn’t have to engage in such a process, given their performance on behalf of the Town over the past several years. While some argued that the issuance of the RFP was nothing more than a blatant act to remove Troon from the position of operating the facility that actually was not likely the case. Troon had previously been granted an extension to their contractual relationship with the Town as the golf course operator. However, the Town had never actually selected Troon as the operator of the Town-owned courses. In fact, they had inherited Troon as the operator as a requirement of a provision in the Purchase Agreement with HSL back in 2014. Under State Law, such contractual arrangements by Municipal entities must be accomplished through an open, competitive RFP process. Town officials cited this fact as the basis for their issuance of the RFP and that argument is compelling.
Ultimately, Troon did respond as an applicant in the RFP process, reportedly at the encouragement of Town Manager Mary Jacobs. Approximately five other companies submitted applications for the operator position. However, the process was interrupted by the sudden appearance in the United States of the COVID-19 pandemic in the late-winter, early-spring of 2020. As a result, the RFP process was delayed by the Town for several months due to this health crisis beginning to rage across the entire country.
Finally, on May 15, 2020, Town officials announced that Antares Golf had been selected as the new golf operator of the Town-owned courses. Antares Golf had formerly been known as Billy Casper Golf. However, as a result of a legal dispute with the family of the deceased founder of the brand, they changed their name to Antares. By the middle of the winter, they would undergo another name change and become Indigo Golf Partners.
The company was not new to the Tucson area. Prior to their success in the RFP process, they managed Arizona National Golf Club on the east side of Tucson, and the Quarry Pines Golf Club in Marana. In their thirty years of operation, their portfolio of over 160 golf courses nationwide included a significant number of Municipal courses (more than any other operator), in addition to a smaller number of high end golf properties.
While some people were skeptical of their selection, a review of the proposals submitted by all three of the RFP finalists obtained as a result of a Public Disclosure Request revealed that, on an unbiased basis, Antares submitted the most compelling proposal. The fact that they had more Municipal golf operation experience than any other applicant likely had an influence on their selection. Further, the analysis strongly suggested that no influence on the selection process by the Mayor or any other Councilmember had taken place. It appeared the selection process was completely Town staff driven and implemented, and in the end, authentic.
Prior to the implementation of the RFP process, some observers surmised that the Town might be inclined to have a preference for O.B. Sports as the Town’s golf operator. That company operated the Tucson City-owned Municipal golf courses. In an interesting twist, Troon Golf purchased that company in early 2020. O.B. Sports never submitted an application regarding the RFP.
The operational transition between Troon Golf and Indigo Golf Partners progressed in relative seamless fashion. Initially, the transition was to have taken place in mid-September, 2020, upon the expiration of the Troon contract with the Town. However, arrangements were ultimately made so that the transition took place effective July 1, 2020, to coincide with the start of the Town’s 2020-2021 fiscal year. A significant number of former Troon staff members, including the Head and Assistant Golf Professionals, the Director of Membership, and the Food Service Director remained part of the Indigo Golf Partners team at El Conquistador. Bernie Eaton became the General Manager. Mr. Eaton had been the General Manager at Arizona National Golf Club with Indigo Golf Partners and, at one time, had been an Assistant Golf Professional at El Conquistador. A number of Golf Members at El Conquistador had previously worked with Mr. Eaton, and he was certainly very familiar with the property. In what some observers might consider an even more wry development than Troon’s purchase of O.B. Sports, in early January of 2021, after Indigo Golf Partners had been operating the Town-owned facility for seven months, Troon Golf purchased Indigo Golf Partners.
Even before the transition to operation by Indigo Golf Partners, the situation at El Conquistador Golf was complicated, as earlier explained, by the COVID-19 pandemic. By early March of 2020, the entire country was dramatically disrupted by the consequences of the disease. Golf courses across the nation were impacted like every other social and business function. Initially, golf courses were almost uniformly closed. Shortly, however, in a number of states including Arizona, health and government officials began to conclude that, because the sport was played exclusively outdoors, if certain accommodations were made, people could safely engage in the sport. As a result, courses in many locations began the implementation of certain protocols designed to protect participants and allow people to play the game.
First, the normal requirement for using masks when inside facilities such as the Golf Pro Shop or rest rooms were uniformly enforced. Initially, no gathering in restaurant/bar facilities was permitted, nor were players allowed to socially gather after playing a round of golf. In addition, rakes were removed from bunkers so players were not handling them. The USGA had recently changed the general rules of golf to allow the pins holding the flags on the greens could remain in the hole when putting. This change also meant that players didn’t need to handle the flags. To further facilitate this aspect of play, courses were set up with “bumpers” placed around the base of the pins so players could easily extract their golf ball after holing a putt. Golf carts were sanitized after every use, and players were not allowed, initially, to pair up in golf carts, further limiting contact between players. Sanitizer was provided inside facilities and players were encouraged to carry hand sanitizer with them, use it frequently, and regularly wash their hands whenever possible. Finally, players were encouraged to maintain appropriate social distancing, even when outside engaging in play.
The described protocols were implemented in courses throughout the country where governmental agencies, such as in the State of Arizona, allowed courses to be open for play. At this time, El Conquistador Golf was still under Troon management, and with their experience and presence as a national company, these practices were immediately implemented at the Town-owned golf courses.
As a result of the implementation of these protocols on a nation-wide basis, the National Golf Foundation reported in 2021 that: “December rounds were up more than 37% nationwide, according to Golf Datatech’s monthly report, capping a resurgent year for the U.S. market. Overall, play during 2020 was up 13.9% over 2019, putting the year-end total at around 500 million rounds. Play at private clubs was up 19.9% year-over-year, while public facilities (including resorts that were more affected by travel limitations) saw a 12.4% rise in rounds.”
Clearly, in many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster for our country and the world. Surprisingly, for golf at El Conquistador, and in most places around the country, it helped create an upsurge in play. It has brought a significant number of players to, or back to, the sport, likely due to the fact that it became an outdoor activity that was safe and attractive for people to engage in. It also allowed some level of social interaction, when many other such activities were not permitted. The impact of these facts continues to have a positive effect upon the fiscal status of El Conquistador Golf and the Community Center Fund.
If the pandemic had a potentially positive impact upon the golf industry nation-wide and at El Conquistador, it likely have the reverse effect upon another activity, the August 4, 2020, Oro Valley Town Council election. Incumbent Councilmembers Bill Rodman and Steve Solomon were up for re-election and decided to run. Incumbent Councilmember Rhonda Pina decided not to run for re-election, but decided to pursue a position on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
These incumbent Councilmembers had been consistent supporters of retaining thirty-six holes of Town-owned golf at the Community Center during the 2019 Council consideration of that issue. While almost always finding themselves in the minority, given the makeup of the Council, they consistently supported the Town-owned golf position. A loss of any of these incumbents would likely result in the majority on the Council becoming, essentially, a “super majority.”
By the spring of 2020, Dr. Harry (Mo) Greene decided to run for the position then held by Ms. Pena. Dr. Greene had an impressive resume. He was a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army as an Airborne Battalion Surgeon. He had been a prominent physician in Massachusetts where he worked with then Governor Charlie Baker to create that State’s first Children’s Health Care Bill, and participated in establishing the nation’s first Ronald McDonald House. He retired to Oro Valley in 2002, and continued to pursue his passion for art as an oil painter and art teacher, serving as Co-Chairman of the Southern Arizona Arts Guild (SAAG) and juried art festivals at Riverfront Park. He was also a Golf Member at El Conquistador Golf, and had actively worked to convince the Council to adopt the position they ultimately adopted at the October and November 2019 Council meetings.
Councilmembers Rodman and Solomon, together with Dr. Greene, would be opposed in the election by former Councilmember Bill Garner, and newcomer Tim Bohen. When Mr. Garner was a Councilmember, he had opposed the Town purchase of the Community Center property and consistently opposed the continued Town ownership of the golf courses. He also had been a consistent critic of Police Chief Danny Sharp, constantly voting against budget provisions supporting the Town’s Police Department.
Mr. Bohen had not previously held public office, but had served on the Town’s Historic Preservation Commission. He also frequently appeared at Town Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, speaking consistently against development projects, and was opposed to the continued ownership by the Town of the golf courses, which he made a part of his campaign positions.
The Council campaign in the summer of 2020 would be unique in a number of ways, but particularly so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the pandemic, public meetings of any significant size were prohibited. Consequently, normal campaign activities, such as rallies, group forums where candidates appeared on a panel to address questions posed by representatives of the Chamber of Commerce or other organizations could not and did not take place. The simple process of collecting signatures so a candidate could be placed on the ballot, or going door-to-door to meet and lobby voters, became extraordinarily difficult. People were extremely reluctant to engage in such activities, given appropriate social distancing expectations as a result of the pandemic. As a consequence, the primary campaign strategy became the use of social media. Under these circumstances it was incredibly difficult to gauge the direction the campaign was going from any individual candidate’s perspective. Certainly, campaign signs proliferated, as had been the case in previous elections, but determining their impact was extremely problematic.
To many observers, the outcome of the election was something of a surprise. Incumbent Councilmember Solomon received 8,574 votes, the most of any of the candidates. Dr. Greene received 8,540 votes, only slightly behind Mr. Solomon. Mr. Bohen would become the third Councilmember, having received 8,245 votes, or slightly less than 100 votes more than Councilmember Rodman. Mr. Garner was the trailing candidate, receiving 8,038 votes. Consequently, in the end, it appeared after the election that the current majority on the Council would add to their majority, since Mayor Winfield and Vice-Mayor Barrett had both endorsed Mr. Bohen.
During the discussions in October and November of 2019 regarding whether to continue operation of the thirty-six holes of golf at the Community Center, very little discussion ensued concerning the status of the Town-owned Pusch Ridge Course near the Resort. It would be fair to say not only was it not a subject of discussion, it virtually fell into a black hole, regardless of the efforts of Guy Cook and other residents adjacent to the course. Homeowners around Pusch Ridge voiced concerns about the lack of discussion, but were told Pusch Ridge was not under review, only the 36 holes, because Pusch Ridge had different “complexities”.
In mid-winter of 2019, the decision by HSL to lease the Pusch Ridge course was delayed. When that happened, Pusch Ridge homeowners implored Town Manager Jacobs to prepare the course for opening and over-seed so that even in January, it could be opened for high season, since the seed had already been purchased. Homeowners were informed that would not be done, and if HSL didn’t lease the course, the Town would not reopen it.
With the onset of the pandemic, HSL had little choice but to abandon consideration of exercising its option under the Purchase Agreement to lease the property for $10,000 a year and operate the golf course with assistance from the neighboring HOAs. The pandemic had a dramatic financial impact on the Resort, and HSL had its hands full just managing that calamity.
During the early stage of the pandemic, the Pusch Ridge course was abruptly closed in April, 2020, a month earlier than originally scheduled. Town Manager Mary Jacobs apologized for not letting homeowners know in advance of the closure. She assured adjacent residents that the greens would be maintained in a manner that would allow the reopening of the course the following year, and that the property would not be allowed to follow the Vistoso example, which had closed over two years earlier and had become a wasteland. Unfortunately, by the winter of 2020, these assurances proved to be untrue.
The leaders of the adjacent HOAs at Pusch Ridge began to actively organize in an effort to protect the golf property and their property values in similar fashion to what the Canada Hills Master and The Villages HOA leadership did in 2019. Guy Cook, the former President of the El Conquistador Resort Patio Homes HOA, decided not to seek reelection to that position, but remained active in the effort to save the Pusch Ridge course. The lead actor in that effort became Tony D’Angelo, also a resident of the Patio Homes, and a former hospitality industry executive. They formed a nonprofit organization named “Friends of Pusch Ridge Golf” to establish a formal organization that could provide funding for their cause.
As the property the nine-hole golf course rested on continued to deteriorate, the leadership at Pusch Ridge attempted to escalate their efforts. Mr. D’Angelo took six of the seven members of the Town Council on tours of the property via golf cart to give them a clear view of the impact of the neglect the property was experiencing under the Town’s direction. Only Councilmember Josh Nicolson declined the offer to take a tour. On those tours it became clear to Mr. D’Angelo that those on the Council all had expected HSL to lease and operate the course. Councilmember Jones-Ivey actually told him that they had no “plan B” and she was now learning that they always needed a “plan B”. Vice-Mayor Barrett acknowledged during her tour that Pusch Ridge, unlike Vistoso, was not as conducive to conversion to open space by nature of the open fairways.
Mr. D’Angelo and his Pusch Ridge HOA colleagues continued to pursue the prospect of making contributions to the Town with the surrounding HOAs to support the property in similar fashion that the Canada Hills Master and The Villages HOAs had negotiated with the Town regarding the thirty-six holes at the Community Center. The Pusch Ridge homeowners were open to helping the Town with a subsidy, but were less enthusiastic about giving money to a for-profit business. Their suggestion was to look at a three-way arrangement - the Town, the HOAs and HSL. The Town Manager, however, insisted they only work with HSL on any lease option.
The Pusch Ridge leaders organized citizen communication via email and letters with the Mayor and Councilmembers, and letters-to-the-editor in The Explorer. They also developed and distributed through various means a video that documented the deterioration of the property under the Town’s stewardship and described the consequences of continuing to pursue that course of action.
These efforts by the Pusch Ridge property owners, and for likely other reasons that are not particularly clear, resulted in a turnaround by the Mayor and Council. On November 18, 2020, the Town Council had voted to “request the Town Manager and the Town Attorney to initiate discussions with HSL and the HOAs that surround the Pusch Ridge Golf Course in an effort to negotiate an acceptable plan for the maintenance and use of that course subject to Council approval.” HSL Representative Omar Mireles and five members of the three surrounding HOA’s participated in multiple discussions regarding potential solutions and options. During the course of these discussions, the HOA representatives stated their willingness to financially contribute toward the continued operation of the golf course. They further stated their unwillingness to partner with HSL on any option, or to financially contribute to an alternative option to golf.
Finally, at the Council meeting on February 17, 2021, Town Manager Mary Jacobs provided the Mayor and Council two options regarding the future of the Pusch Ridge Course. The first was to continue to operate the property as a golf course. Ms. Jacobs provided a five year Proforma that described the economic outcome of this approach. The second option presented was to “Convert the golf course to natural open space.” A five year Proforma regarding the economic outcome of this option was also presented. A review of the cumulative impact to the Town of the two options clearly illustrated that maintaining the property as a golf course in the short term would cost the Town less than converting it to “natural open space.” At this meeting, twenty-three citizens spoke in favor of retaining the property as a golf course. No one spoke in opposition to this approach.
Following discussion, Mayor Winfield made a motion that was seconded by Councilmember Greene, “to approve option “A” to continue to operate golf on the 9 hole Pusch course and include that the Town pursue a request for proposals for a third party lease.” In response, Councilmember Solomon requested the following amendment to the main motion:
“The Town form a working group consisting of up to seven (7) experienced resident volunteers that have a minimum of 10 years professional experience in golf course design, management, operations, turnarounds or marketing and include a representative from HSL and from the homeowners’ association. The working group should also consist of staff representation from the Assistant Town Manager, town golf operator and Councilmember Greene as the Council Liaison.”
Mayor Winfield and Councilmember Greene accepted the amendment made by Councilmember Solomon. Following which, Mayor Winfield withdrew the amended motion and requested “that the Town Manager come back to Council in two weeks with a more developed focus and guidance.” In response, after considerable discussion, Councilmember Solomon made a motion that was seconded by Councilmember Greene;
“That the town council direct staff to return with a plan for operating the Pusch ridge golf course to be evaluated within three years as to its continued feasibility, capital improvement requirements while also looking at alternatives to look at water usage, potential new configurations and a third-party lease.”
This motion was passed by a six to one vote, with Councilmember Bohen opposed.
At the following Council meeting on March 3, 2021, Town Manager Jacobs presented the plan for operating Pusch Ridge Golf Course that the Council had directed staff to provide at the February 17, 2021, Council meeting. The document provided a timetable for the major actions required for such operation; establishing the course budget; finalize an HOA Agreement for HOA contributions; contract for and complete pump, irrigation and cart path repairs; moving forward with a lease RFP, etc. Ms. Jacobs reviewed the plan with the Mayor and Council.
Following the Town Manager’s review, Vice-Mayor Barrett, with a second from Councilmember Nicolson moved to:
“Direct Town Staff to issue an RFP for an outside lease in quarter four of Fiscal Year 2021. Golf operators proposals may include contributions from the HOA’s and from the Town that are under currently projected town contributions with town operations. The RFP should ask operators to identify areas where turf may be effectively removed without impacting the play of the current nine hole layout.”
After discussion among the Councilmembers, the motion failed three to four, with Mayor Winfield and Councilmembers Greene, Jones-Ivey and Solomon opposed. Following the vote, Mayor Winfield stated the majority of Council was satisfied with the framework as presented and confirmed that the direction to staff was clear.
As a result of what transpired at the February 17, 2021, and March 3, 2021, Council meetings, it appeared that the Town would continue to operate the Pusch Ridge Golf Course for a period of at least three years, provided an entity could not be found to operate the golf course through a lease. However, a number of issues remained unclear. Would the Pro Shop that previously served the operation be reopened? What, if any, infrastructure improvements regarding irrigation and the golf cart paths would be addressed? Precisely when and in what condition would the course be reopened? The answers to these questions, and others, would only become more uncertain, as a result of the surfacing by the Mayor of, yet, another issue.
With virtually no forewarning the Mayor placed on the agenda of the April 21, 2021, Council meeting an agenda item for a “Public Hearing” on the issue of whether the Council should adopt an Ordinance for the purpose of broadening the use of the revenue resulting from the .5% increase in the sales tax that had been enacted on December 17, 2014, dedicated explicitly to funding the Community Center and Town-owned golf courses. The agenda stated that, if the new Ordinance were adopted by the Council, the next agenda item would be to discuss and take action regarding the future use of the broadened sales tax collections, including the potential bond financing for construction of parks and recreation, golf, and Community Center capital projects, and/or other uses as determined by the Council. There were no staff reports provided with respect to either of these agenda items, consequently the purpose and direction regarding the issues was completely unclear.
During the Public Hearing at the April 21,202, Council meeting, twelve citizens spoke in favor of adopting the new Ordinance to broaden use of the tax revenue, and ten citizens spoke in opposition to its adoption. Listening to the discussion by those who spoke, it was clear that those who were in opposition to adopting such a new Ordinance were being pitted against the interests of children in the Town. While the Mayor made an effort to clarify his intent regarding the Ordinance, it did little to explain the purpose behind the effort. After the public comment, a motion was made by Mayor Winfield and seconded by Councilmember Jones-Ivey to postpone the item until the May 5, 2021, Council meeting. The motion passed five to zero, with Councilmembers Nicolson and Solomon not in attendance.
On the following Monday, Canada Hills Master HOA leaders Steve Jones and Ed Slenz met with Mayor Winfield and Town Manager Mary Jacobs to discuss the intentions regarding the proposed new Ordinance. The meeting had been arranged by the two leaders, because they were concerned that any reduction in revenue derived from the half-cent sales tax that was dedicated to the golf courses and Community Center could, potentially, undermine the economic viability of the asset. They were also concerned such action could be viewed as once again threatening the property values of their homeowners and violate the Agreement the HOAs had entered into with the Town in 2020 to provide contributions to support the golf course operation, consistent with Council action in the fall of 2019.
The discussion with the Mayor and Town Manager proved productive. The following clarification if the proposed new Ordinance were adopted was provided by the Mayor Winfield and Town Manager Jacobs, which they confirmed following the meeting:
Sales Tax revenue would be dedicated to all recreational needs, to include golf and the Community Center;
Operational expenses for all golf, tennis, and community center needs would be covered, first, with the half-cent sales tax revenues;
Funds in excess of the above may be allocated to Naranja park/Community Center/golf/tennis/Steam Pump Ranch/Amphi Schools partnerships/other multiuse needs;
The HOA Agreements (implementation of the irrigation replacement on the Conquistador and Canada Courses) would be fulfilled;
Excess funds would be made available for bonding capital improvement projects for Parks & Rec, the Community Center and golf;
“Pay as you go” would no longer be required for the golf courses and Community Center;
It was recognized that 20% of the community in the Parks & Rec survey had favored golf, and all metrics placed on golf in 2019 had been met; and,
The proposed budget for next year would include the irrigation projects for both courses and funding for all operational costs for all golf, Community Center and tennis facilities.
At the May 5, 2021, Council meeting, the agenda item associated with the Public Hearing on the adoption of the new Ordinance had been changed. Because the Public Hearing conducted at the April 21, 2021, Council meeting had not been formally continued, the Public Hearing element could not be conducted, because proper notice for doing so had not been provided. Consequently, the agenda item now simply consisted of discussion and action regarding the proposed new Ordinance to broaden the use of the tax revenue in question. The motion was made by Mayor Winfield and seconded by Councilmember Bohen; “To approve Ordinance No. (0)21-5, broadening the use of the revenue from the 0.5% increase to the Transaction Privilege Tax enacted by Ordinance No. (0)14-17 on December 17, 2014.” The motion passed six to zero, with Councilmember Solomon being absent.
Following this action, the agenda item associated with the use of the broadened sales tax revenue was addressed. Thirteen citizens spoke in favor of the issue. No one spoke in opposition. Discussion ensued between the Mayor, Councilmembers and staff, following which a motion was made by Mayor Winfield and seconded by Councilmember Jones-Ivey to:
“Direct staff to include bond financing for capital projects utilizing the 0.5% sales tax that exceeds the amount needed to operate the Canada, Conquistador and Pusch Ridge golf courses, Community Center and tennis courts, per prior Town Council direction in the upcoming budget, according to the following criteria: At least 50% be allocated towards Naranja Park. The remainder shall be allocated towards exterior community center/golf course improvements, Steam Pump Ranch improvements and allocations toward Amphitheater School District partnership, multi-use paths and/or other high priority needs.”
After several years of resisting the use of bonding to fund capital projects, it finally appeared that the Mayor and Council had determined this approach was acceptable. By utilization of revenues from the half-cent sales tax previously restricted to use through the Community Center Fund to pay for such bonding, it seemed to enable the Mayor and Council to pursue this avenue. Only because of the financial condition of the Community Center Fund and the golf courses owned by the Town is it likely this could have been possible. It should be noted, however, that by delaying this action by more than two years, in the end tax payers will pay millions of dollars more than otherwise would have been the case. If the actions established in 2018 by the previous Mayor and Council had been implemented instead of scuttled; or, if the Mayor and Council had followed the advice of staff and others in November of 2019, and bonded instead of insisting upon “pay-as-you-go,” the amount of money required to make these capital investments would have been considerably less at either of those decision-points than is now the case in May of 2021. The fact is, the costs for implementing these projects has significantly escalated over the last three years, which was explained to the Mayor and Council by Town staff and others both times they declined to act.
It has been described earlier that over the prior three years, the amount of tax support required for the operation of the Town-owned golf courses had steadily been declining. An examination of the Proforma’s presented by Town Manager Mary Jacobs during the October and November 2019 deliberations concerning the future of the golf courses show an expectation over a five year period that this trend would continue. Many people asserted that, if the cloud of doubt about the continuation of the golf courses were lifted, this progress would escalate. At the meeting between the Canada Hills Master HOA leaders, Steve Jones and Ed Slenz, Mayor Winfield and Town Manager Jacobs, the truth of these predictions were realized. The Mayor and Town Manager confirmed that all of the “metrics” that the Mayor and Council had established at the November 20, 2019 Council meeting regarding the performance of the golf courses had been met.
The issue of Golf Membership was one of those “metrics” as was increasing Membership Dues revenue 10% by January 1, 2021. He made it clear the actual dues rate could be raised to achieve that, or an increase in the number of Golf Members could be included, as well. The Mayor said that it would be a goal to achieve 275 Golf Members by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year. In fact, as of the end of April, 2021, a year earlier than the date for achieving the goal described by Mayor Winfield there were 304 Golf Members at El Conquistador. Also, the actual Membership Dues rate was, in fact, raised by 10% by January 1, 2021. Obviously, the revenues from both of these sources significantly exceeded what would have been the case if the goals set by the Mayor were achieved by the date he defined. (please see graphic in footnotes at end for most recent numbers)
Another “metric” set as a goal by Mayor Winfield in 2019 was that the golf course reach the goal of having 40,000 rounds of “outside play” by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year. Also, the Mayor stated that tee times for outside play should be made available on all 36 holes of golf, which has now been the case for a year. The number of outside rounds was exceeded by the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, a year ahead of the date set. And, again, revenues from this source were achieved a year ahead of what the Mayor suggested should be the goal.
Perhaps the most significant “metric” established by Mayor Winfield in 2019 was achieving a required tax support level of not more than $750,000 a year. That metric was also exceeded by the end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Those associated with the facility firmly believed that once a final decision to retain the golf courses was made, the uncertainty that had plagued the facility for years would be removed. And, as capital improvements to the courses were accomplished, the quality of the golfing experience would be significantly enhanced. They believed that under those circumstances the number of Members and outside play, including winter visitors, would significantly increase. That belief was based upon the fact that there is no comparable golf facility, together with the amenities that exist at the Community and Recreation Center, in Oro Valley, especially with the closure of the Vistoso Course. (It must be noted that in the immediate Oro Valley area, Stone Canyon and Oro Valley Country Club are both strictly private facilities, and The Views Golf Course has extremely limited tee time availability. This makes the Town-owned El Conquistador facility the only courses reasonably available for public play in the immediate area.)
The current information, through the end of the 2021 fiscal year (notwithstanding the COVID pandemic situation), illustrates that the predictions were correct that once the “black cloud of uncertainty about the golf courses” was removed, the facility would be successful. As of October 1, 2021, there were 303 full-time and 2 short-term golf Memberships, representing 435 individuals at the Town-owned El Conquistador facility. That Membership number well exceeds the Mayor’s goal of achieving 275 Members by June 31, 2022. In addition, golf rounds played during the 2020 – 2021 fiscal year were 86,706, compared to 60,802 for the previous fiscal year. That’s an increase of forty-three percent (43%). The year-end budget resulted in requiring only $256,612 in tax support after the HOA contribution of $125,000 and $83,076 in local sales taxes generated from golf-related operations had been applied. This is well over $1 million better than the actual 2019-2020 budget, and significantly exceeds the Mayor’s 2019 stated goal of requiring not more than $750,000 in tax support by June 31, 2022.
It is very true that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a curiously positive impact upon the “bottom line” regarding the current golf course financial performance. This impact, after all, is being felt across the country with respect to golf. However, it can be argued that this element does not have much of an impact upon the Golf Membership numbers. Those individuals are not casual players who are anxious to be able to periodically engage in outside activity that also has a social aspect. Their investment suggests much more than that. It is also arguable that the trending fiscal improvement will only escalate if the infrastructure investments that were described at the May 5, 2021, Council meeting are actually implemented over the next two years. In fact, at the Council meeting on November 3, 2021, the Council, by a 6 to 1 margin, approved full funding for replacement of the irrigation systems on both the Conquistador and Canada Golf Courses. The contract for that work on both courses has been signed by the parties, and preliminary discussions are already underway to implement the work on the Conquistador Course this coming summer. Certainty regarding the sustainability of the golf courses has now been achieved. When that work has been accomplished, the value of the golf courses as an important Town asset will be obvious and property values that were a concern of HOA members will have been protected.