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Santa Rosa residents, golfers rally to 'save' Bennett Valley Golf Course

Southeast Santa Rosa residents and golfers have teamed up to defend the Bennett Valley Golf Course, prompting a City Council member to rescind support for the city’s effort to study the 175-acre property’s redevelopment potential.

More than 2,000 people have joined a private Facebook group dedicated to “saving” the city-owned course and launched a campaign to block development of the Yulupa Avenue property, which has provided golfers with a relatively affordable place to play for more than 50 years. Dozens of cars lined up at the course Friday afternoon, their drivers ready to pick up yard signs at $10 a pop to show their support.

“It’s a big push, and it’s what we need to see,” said Louis Capuano, president of the Bennett Valley Golf Club, who's been playing at the course since the 1990s. “It’s home. It’s kind of like ’Cheers’ — everybody knows your name. But it’s a big part of the city, I think. It is a gem of the city.”

The debate over the future of the golf course was sparked in early February, when the City Council voted 5-2 to contract with a commercial real estate firm for a study on future uses of the property. That vote was nowhere close to a final decision to shut down the golf course and use the land for other purposes, potentially including a housing development. But the mere prospect of losing the 18-hole course galvanized its supporters to attempt to halt the $150,000 study.

The course, which includes a driving range, a pro shop and clubhouse in need of a restaurant, has suffered in recent years amid a nationwide decline in the popularity of golf. The COVID-19 pandemic led to sharp increase in the number of rounds played on its links last year, but it also led to the demise of the restaurant, Legends Sports Grill.

The golf course, as a city enterprise, is supposed to pay for itself, and its tens of thousands of rounds per year do generate substantial cash. But the course’s profitability is hampered by the annual payments needed to retire more than $4 million in bond debt remaining from a 2005 renovation.

The city paid $10,000 for an initial study of the golf course site and its potential uses by CBRE, a national real estate firm that’s in line for another $140,000 if the city follows through with its plan for a broader study.

There’s no redevelopment plan in place, but the tone of the presentation struck many golf course advocates as overtly pro-development. That rattled local golfers and residents who don’t golf but prefer the space to remain green and open. Hundreds joined a private Facebook group, Save Bennett Valley Golf Course, fearing the links will be “bulldozed” — taking a cue from a recent Press Democrat editorial that used that word.

The group already has flexed its lobbying muscles, leading Councilman John Sawyer, whose district includes Bennett Valley, to drop his support for the outside study on the golf course. Citing the “dreary picture” painted by the initial presentation from CBRE and city staff, the longtime councilman said he felt an obligation to listen to “those outcries of concern and worry and fear of changes on that site” from his constituents.

“I have changed my mind and would no longer support moving forward with a contract at this time,” Sawyer said.

Mayor Chris Rogers, who was on the minority side of the council’s 5-2 decision to forge ahead with a study, recently hosted a lengthy virtual meeting with concerned residents and golfers. The meeting ended up going three hours and at one point hosted as many as 180 people, Rogers said, forcing him to upgrade his Zoom account to accommodate the number of people who wanted to share their thoughts.

Many expressed concern about the outcome of the study based on the city’s decision to hire CBRE, which has extensive development experience. The idea that Santa Rosa would pick a real estate company that specializes in development work gave many the idea that the city had already determined the golf course’s days were numbered.

“I think for a lot of those folks, it’s a special place, and there’s concern that it’s being treated as more of a liability than an asset,“ Rogers said.

The city’s plan to study the Bennett Valley Golf Course comes at an opportune time for golfers, who can point to a spike in use during the pandemic from about 40,000 rounds in 2019 to about 60,000 rounds in 2020.

About half of last year’s golfers were adult Santa Rosa residents, according to city data. About 31% were nonresidents and 10% were senior annual pass holders, with “unlimited” pass holders and youth golfers rounding out the course’s user base.

But the 50% jump in usage last year is an outlier. Over the last two decades, the number of rounds played at the course has dropped nearly in half, from roughly 100,000 a year at the turn of the millennium.

And though COVID-19 has driven up the amount of golfing at Bennett Valley, it’s also spelled the end of the Legends Sports Grill, the course restaurant, which closed in December due to the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant business.

The scapegoat for golf course advocates is the 2005 clubhouse project, which cost about $10.6 million. That redevelopment lives on not only in the contemporary clubhouse but in the city’s budget, as Santa Rosa still needs to pay off roughly $4.5 million in remaining bond debt. The payments needed to pay down the debt, coupled with the cost of operating the venue, have forced the golf course to draw upon reserve funds 11 of the past 15 years, according to city staff.

The course also needs about $2 million to repair or replace its aging irrigation and drainage system — a problem the city has been aware of for several years at least, as it was highlighted in a 2013 study of the course.

The next step in the city’s effort, which Rogers said likely won’t come up for at least a few weeks, is the formal decision on whether to approve a deeper study to build on CBRE’s initial report.

The outpouring of support for the golf course’s status quo continued Tuesday when its defenders, including Brianne Galvin Murphy, whose grandfather, Dan Galvin, headed a committee in the 1960s that led to the course’s creation and was the namesake for the city park directly adjacent to the Bennett Valley Golf Course, showed up en masse to a virtual meeting of the City Council.

“Dismantling the golf course is not an acceptable solution in your attempt to mitigate cost and to fix what is essentially your predecessors’ mistakes when they chose to overspend on the clubhouse years ago,” Galvin Murphy said.

The golf course so thoroughly dominated Tuesday’s public comment for the City Council’s annual priority-setting meetings that City Manager Sean McGlynn took up the issue Wednesday morning when briefing the council.

“Staff has made no decisions,” McGlynn said. “What we understand is there’s an opportunity now, and frankly, sometimes we’re not the best or fully equipped to handle that, and sometimes that’s why we need to bring in outside help.”

McGlynn noted that a green-fees increase or some sort of subsidy might be necessary in order to keep the golf course up and running.

“It’s not that the golf course doesn’t make money,” McGlynn said. “The question is, does it make enough money to sustain itself in the long term and address its infrastructure needs?”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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