Thursday, March 18, 2010

July 2008 article demonsrates golf course downward spiral with city ownership

A MATTER OF COURSE by Doug Doughty Sunday, July 27, 2008 The Roanoke Times Sports Section

Summary: Fans of Countryside Golf Club hope the controversial Roanoke landmark sees its 42nd birthday.

Todd Prohammer, who is in his third month as general manager and golf professional at Countryside Golf Club, wasn’t trying to make a statement when he set aside some time Wednesday to look at houses.

“I wouldn’t read too much into that,” said Prohammer, who has been living with a cousin in Franklin County.

Prohammer definitely would like to stay in the Roanoke Valley, but he can’t vouch for the long-term viability of Countryside, which opened in 1967 as Arrowwood Golf Course and is hopeful of seeing its 42nd birthday.

“I’m pretty confident that it’s going to stay a golf course,” Prohammer said. “I think it has the support of the community. If they did anything else with the golf course, I think there would be a big uproar.”

There already has been an uproar, not that Prohammer was around to witness it.

In 2005, Roanoke City Council approved the purchase of Countryside for $4.1 million from the Meadowbrook Golf Group, with the intention of closing the course and developing the land for housing or economic development.

That move was met with considerable opposition, and the absence of firm development proposals caused Roanoke City Council to put plans on hold. Nelson Harris, the Roanoke City Mayor, indicated the issue would be revisited after 2008 council elections.

One of Harris’ opponents in that race was David Bowers, who indicated early in the race that he was for keeping Countryside around. That didn’t change when he was elected mayor on May 6.

“I want to change the focus and I might say that I need four votes — mine and three others,” Bowers said Thursday. “I want to change the focus to where we’re not in the development mode; we’re in the preservation mode.

“I want to see us make it a municipal course. Whether it’s run by the city or run by a private operator is not the big issue for me.”

The course currently is operated by its old owner, Meadowbrook Golf, under a management agreement that expires Oct. 31.

“I think Meadowbrook is very happy with [the agreement] and would love to get some solidity in their lease so that some needed upgrades can be done,” Prohammer said.

The current Roanoke City Council, with four new members, will be briefed on Countryside for the first time Aug. 4.

Prohammer said he would expect some resolution at that point, but, as far as real deadlines, there are two:

The management agreement expires Oct. 31 and the city’s lease of the Roanoke Regional Airport’s fly zone ends in November. The fly zone includes 46 acres in the middle of the golf course.

“The middle of the golf course isn’t owned by us,” assistant city manager Brian Townsend said. “It’s owned by the airport authority.”

Townsend said he has heard Countryside described as a “cash cow” and he’s also heard it characterized as a “drain.” He believes the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

“Based on what we know from the management agreement, net revenue the past couple of years has been miniscule,” Townsend said, “and that’s without any major capital investment. I wouldn’t say it’s been a drain. The revenue numbers have been in the black but not by a lot.”

In 2005, the first year Roanoke City has data available, there were about 32,700 rounds played at Countryside. In 2007, that dropped to 28,100.

“There’s been a decline in play,” Townsend said, “but we’ve polled some other courses in the region and at best, rounds have been kind of flat the past couple of years.”

On a radiant Thursday morning, there were 30 cars in the Countryside lot some of them belonging to employees.

“It’s been slow,” Prohammer said. “It’s almost been like a perfect storm. First of all, everybody is affected by the economy. Secondly, there’s the uncertainty surrounding the golf course.

“That’s the question I’ve gotten the most since I’ve been here. If I’m out and about, if I go the bank and they know I work at Countryside, they’ll say, ‘Oh, is that place still open?’ I get that a lot.”

Countryside is currently running a special that enables players to tee off between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursday and pay $29 for golf, cart and lunch.

“The regular rate is $34,” Prohammer said. “So you’re getting $5 off, and you get a free lunch.”

Still, interest has been lukewarm.

“It’s like if you hear that your favorite coffee shop is closing,” he said. “You’re going to start looking for a new coffee shop.”

Prohammer, 31, was a golf pro in Newfield, N.J., for seven years before applying for a job at the Brigantine (N.J.) Golf Links, another Meadowbrook property. He was intrigued by the Countryside opening because it allowed him to be golf pro and GM.

“My first impression was ‘wow,’ ” said Prohammer, whose wife is a teacher. “I just think it’s one of the best layouts I’ve ever seen. It’s got so much potential. The first I heard about the job, I was told it was a city golf course. I wasn’t expecting country club conditions.”

Countryside has seldom looked greener or better groomed than it did Thursday.

“You can’t tell whether it’s nature or nurture,” said longtime Countryside patron Pat Greeley, “not that it matters.”

After Greeley moved from Charlottesville to Roanoke in 1991, he worked part-time behind the counter at Countryside. He plays about twice a week at Countryside but serves as the Roanoke Valley Golf Hall of Fame representative from Hanging Rock and also has played under the Ole Monterey banner.

“My heart is at Countryside,” he said. “I think Ellis Maples was an exceptional golf architect and Countryside is an exceptionally good layout.”

Townsend said that the year-to-year management agreement has provided little incentive for either Roanoke City or Meadowbrook to come up with a marketing plan. Seemingly, the next several months should reveal a good idea of the future.

“We’ve got something to embrace, not to bulldoze over,” Prohammer said. “There’s a lot of history at this golf course. A lot of people have a Countryside story.”

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Roanoke City Politics

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