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What to do with the Bennett Valley Golf Course, Santa Rosa City Council wonders

Santa Rosa will pay $150,000 for a consultant to study whether to repurpose part or all of its Bennett Valley Golf Course complex, where the city is looking at options that range from leaving the site largely intact to a full-scale redevelopment with new homes and businesses.

The 18-hole course has been a fixture on Santa Rosa’s southeastern edge for a half century. But surging demand for other types of recreational space, including playing fields, and a deep shortage of affordable housing in Santa Rosa have put pressure on city leaders to consider other uses for the 175-acre public property.

The course’s annual use by golfers has dropped by more than half over the past two decades — reflecting a nationwide trend at golf courses, where declining participation has led to more closures than openings.

Santa Rosa also continues to carry more than $4 million in debt from a bond the city issued 16 years ago to finance upgrades at the course, including a new clubhouse. Legends Sports Grill, the course restaurant, closed its doors last year, citing pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

While the course has seen an upswing in players amid the pandemic as people rush to outdoor recreation, the long-term forecast for the municipal links remains cloudy.

The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday to advance the outside study, with Mayor Chris Rogers and Councilman Tom Schwedhelm opposed.

Rogers suggested holding off on a study, noting that the City Council is set to have a comprehensive multi-day session later this month to discuss its broader goals. He suggested the golf course study could wait, potentially saving the city some money.

City Manager Sean McGlynn pushed back against that notion, advocating for spending on a consultant to give the city needed expertise in the economics of golf.

“I think we’re at one of those crossroads where the council’s going to have to invest to get the answers you’re looking for,” McGlynn said.

City staff favored the study, and Vice Mayor Natalie Rogers, along with council members Eddie Alvarez, Victoria Fleming, John Sawyer and Jack Tibbetts, endorsed the spending.

Redeveloping the full site is one option, according to a preliminary scoping presented to the council Tuesday. It’s unclear how much development the site could support and what mix of residential and commercial activity would be best suited if Santa Rosa opts to replace the golf course.

One recent development to catch the city’s eye is Santa Clara’s move to shut down its own golf course to make way for a 240-acre development featuring millions of square feet for businesses and thousands of new homes near Levi’s Stadium, home of the 49ers.

Partial redevelopment presents another mix of options, including a smaller course that would make way for more fields for soccer, baseball and softball — organized sports that are growing as golf sinks. Nearby Galvin Park has a soccer pitch and a baseball diamond, but the city may seek to add enough fields to support tournaments while also creating more exhibition and practice room for local teams.

The city might also only redevelop the relatively short and narrow driving range. And with the contract of longtime course operator Bob Borowicz expiring in the middle of 2022, Santa Rosa would prefer to find a single operator for both the course and the restaurant and leave the site basically as-is.

Local golfers, of course, would rather the city leave the course alone.

James Miller, a member of the Bennett Valley Golf Club, managed to sneak in a round Monday before the latest round of rainy weather. Standing outside the course’s pro shop while looking down the par 5 first hole, he emphasized the camaraderie that the course offers to him while noting that golf can be a challenging and stabilizing outdoor pastime, especially during the pandemic.

“If you’re struggling in your life, diversions are often a healthy thing,” Miller said. “You build houses here ... you take that away from everybody.”

But over the last two decades, the Bennett Valley course has not been spared from the headwinds hitting the sport.

The course remains profitable, city staff maintained in their report and in Tuesday’s presentation. But they expressed concerns about its long-term viability, noting that about $4.5 million in debt remains from the 2005 bond and questioning whether the city’s share of green fees and other sources of revenue at the Bennett Valley complex will be enough to pay off the debt while funding operations. They also identified the need to spend about $2 million for a new irrigation system to water the course.

The course was seeing about 100,000 rounds per year two decades ago, but that had fallen to about 80,000 a year in 2005, according to available city data.

Golfers played more than 70,000 rounds per year at Bennett Valley in the years after the recession. But from mid-2015 — months after greens fees were raised from $40 to $43 — to mid-2017, use of the course plummeted from more than 71,000 rounds a year to about 46,500 rounds.

Even before that drop, the city decided in 2014 to dip into general tax revenue to help pay for the course’s financial needs. In the city’s budget, the Bennett Valley course is envisioned to be a self-funding enterprise.

Rounds played on the course rose to about 60,500 in 2020 after dropping to about 40,250 in 2019.

But that recovery has no guarantee of enduring once the pandemic ends, said Doug Main, executive vice president with CBRE, the consulting firm Santa Rosa has turned to in its initial study of the course.

“We’re not saying there is a right or wrong way,” Main told the council. “We’re just some offering some opportunities to you.”

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

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