Operators both large and small are vying for the chance to take the reins of a county-owned golf course in Henrico.
About a dozen potential suitors attended a meeting last week that was required for any party interested in responding to an RFP to lease and operate Belmont Golf Course.
The meeting, led by Cecelia Stowe, Henrico purchasing director, and Neil Luther, director of the Recreation and Parks Department. Luther laid out the ground rules for the RFP issued by the county this month, as well as offered a tour of the century-old municipal, daily-fee course at 1600 Hilliard Road.
Only those who attended the meeting are able to respond to the RFP, which would give the winning proposal a 20-year lease for the course to begin Jan. 1, 2020. The county would retain ownership of the 125-acre property.
Among those in attendance, according to a list made public by the county, were golf course management companies of all sorts, including national firms with dozens of courses in their portfolios such as Billy Casper Golf, Brown Golf Management and KemperSports.
Regional and local competitors also are looking for a chance to win the RFP, including Up to Par Management in Lexington, Virginia, and New Direction Golf Management in Fredericksburg.
Mike Byrd, owner of New Direction Golf Management, said he’s making a run at the Belmont contract based on his company’s experience managing Gauntlet Golf Club, a daily fee course owned by Stafford County.
“We’re highly interested in it,” Byrd said of Belmont. “The setup is very similar to what I do currently. I like the location. I like what the county was asking for.”
Sean Taylor, CEO of Up to Par Management, said his firm plans to respond to the RFP. Belmont would add to the nine courses that it manages, all but one of which are in Virginia. They include Lexington Golf & Country Club, Heritage Hunt Golf & Country Club and Regency at Dominion Valley.
“We are extremely interested in the opportunity to be able serve the Richmond community,” Taylor said.
Up to Par has ideas for new offerings at Belmont aimed at boosting player traffic, including junior golfers, Taylor said.
“I would love to be able to see a driving range there,” he said. “Belmont has its challenges – in a sense that it is very difficult to grow the game there without a practice facility.”
Up to Par and New Direction may have to contend with a few of the bigger names in golf course management and consulting.
Strong competitors emerge
On hand at the meeting was Billy Casper Golf, which manages dozens of courses nationally and about a dozen in Virginia, including Magnolia Green in Chesterfield and Brickshire in New Kent County; Brown Golf Management out of Pinehurst, North Carolina, a company that manages more than two dozen courses, including many around the Southeast; and KemperSports, an Illinois-based course management and development firm with a portfolio of dozens of courses nationwide, including Golden Horseshoe Golf Club in Williamsburg.
Nebraska-based Landscapes Unlimited, which develops, constructs and manages courses around the country, also was in attendance.
Among other local and regional parties showing interest are First Tee of Greater Richmond and Williamsburg-based Golf Business Advisors.
Responses to the RFP are due no later than 3 p.m. Oct. 4.
The lease would include operations and maintenance of Belmont’s 18-hole course, practice putting area, pro shop, snack bar and meeting space. It does not include the neighboring county-owned tennis courts, rec center and surrounding parking lots, which Henrico would continue to operate and maintain.
The RFP calls for the county to forgo any lease payments or revenue share from the new operator, while also setting aside $500,000 in county funds to pay for renovations of Belmont’s bunkers, a project the county already had approved but shelved while it weighed options for the course’s future.
The county would operate the course through the end of 2019, before handing the keys over Jan. 1 to the new operator, who would be expected to close it for renovations, including the bunker work, and plan to reopen for play in April or May.
Taylor questioned whether a four-month shutdown out of the gate – in an already slow time of year for golf – will be palatable for RFP respondents.
“The county is asking the operator to take on a tremendous amount of financial risk at the wrong time,” he said. “I don’t know there’s a course in Virginia that makes money in January. They’re asking the operator to take an immediate loss right out of the blocks.”
The county also would provide up to $250,000 in additional capital funding in years two, three and four of the lease, with the operator having to seek permission before spending the money.
The operator would be required to contribute annually a minimum of 5 percent of Belmont’s gross operating revenue equal to or above $1 million into a capital reserve escrow account. That account would be set aside for capital improvements and major repairs that will help preserve the course’s future, according to the RFP.
The new operator will have the ability to set new fees for daily play and to sell alcohol onsite, which has been prohibited under county ownership and is seen as having held back the course financially in recent years.
The operator would be required to provide the fleet of golf carts and pull carts, and a PGA Class A golf professional to work onsite.
The RFP also calls for the creation of a citizen Belmont Golf Advisory Committee to “apprise and advise the Board of Supervisors on all operating issues and concerns arising during the term of the lease and operating agreement.”
The committee would meet regularly and would include a county-designated representative.
Once all proposals are received, the list will be whittled down to a group of finalists with which to negotiate, before recommending the top bid to the Board of Supervisors for ultimate approval.
The winning bid is expected to be presented to the board as soon as its November meeting, with the goal of having the contract awarded in time for an operator to take over by Jan. 1, 2020.
Byrd, from New Direction Golf, said what Belmont ultimately needs is an overall refresh, while not leaving behind its oft-noted history as being designed by renowned course architect A.W. Tillinghast and its status as the only golf course in Virginia to host a PGA major, the 1949 PGA Championship won by native Virginian Sam Snead.
“It’s got great location, good community support, a good layout for growing the game. It just needs a fresh look while upholding the history of the course,” Byrd said.
He said any operator will need to get the course to 32,000 rounds played per year to make a real go at it. Belmont reported 25,000 rounds in fiscal year 2019, up from 21,000 in FY2018, according to documents included in the RFP.
“I think it has that potential,” Byrd said. “I think Belmont has a really good chance. I just think it needs some upgrades and a new perspective, from somebody.”