By John Ruch
The city of Atlanta has taken over management of four golf courses—including Buckhead’s North Fulton course—after twice rejecting a $15 million bid from the nonprofit Atlanta Public Golf Conservancy, a decision that the bidder says left it “flabbergasted” and wondering about a “hidden agenda.”
Now the city is operating the courses with a “skeleton crew” and without such upgrades as a new North Fulton clubhouse, according to Conservancy trustee Whitney Crouse.
The Nov. 1 management change, which the city has not fully explained, apparently was triggered by the controversial shift of Buckhead’s Bobby Jones Golf Course in October to state ownership for a reconstruction plan. American Golf Corporation, which managed the city courses for over 30 years, ended its contract due to the financial implications of Bobby Jones leaving the management portfolio, according to Marty Elgison, president of the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, the nonprofit now managing the course.
“The package of the four [city] courses without Bobby Jones wasn’t economically viable to them,” said Elgison, adding that the change has added to confusion about Bobby Jones’ now separate operations. Bobby Jones is still open and will remain in operation for another year before renovation work begins, he said.
Last month, the city announced that American Golf was ending its contract for the city courses—which also include Brown’s Mill, Candler Park and Alfred “Tup” Holmes—after declining to participate in a competitive bidding process. But the city has repeatedly not answered questions about why the contract was rebid, who else bid and who is running the courses now.
In response to Crouse’s description of the situation and criticisms of the process, city spokesperson Jewanna Gaither said only, “The city of Atlanta did issue an RFP, but did not execute a contract.”
American Golf did not respond to a request for comment.
On Oct. 31, the day American Golf’s contract ended, city Parks Commissioner Amy Phuong issued a statement that suggested a city takeover of the golf course management, announcing the hiring of Arthur Culbreath as an “Interim Head of Golf Operations.” Culbreath did not respond to questions.
“Mr. Culbreath will soon have a full team dedicated to golf management and operations working under his direction,” Phuong’s statement said. “We plan to hire current American Golf staff as subcontractors and to assign some of our strongest, most experienced city employees to the team to maintain current service levels. We will also have all the necessary equipment in place for patrons to use and for the [Parks and Recreation] Department to maintain our courses.”
Phuong’s statement did not mention the Conservancy’s twice-rejected bid, which proposed, among other upgrades, new clubhouses at North Fulton, Brown’s Mill and “Tup” Holmes.
Crouse, a Conservancy trustee and chairman of the Alpharetta-based Mosaic Clubs & Resorts, said the city’s statements have masked confusion and “panic” about the golf course management and mystery about why the Conservancy’s bids were rejected. Mosaic manages several golf courses in metro Atlanta, and is serving as the short-term manager at Bobby Jones.
The Brookhaven-based Conservancy formed several years ago with the idea of possibly managing city golf courses one day. A nonprofit with a diverse membership, its intent is to put profits back into the courses. While Crouse’s company Mosaic is a for-profit, he said it and other members joined the Conservancy “just out of love of the game and to do something for the city and especially for minority kids.”
The Conservancy got its chance a year ago, when it became clear that American Golf was concerned about the Bobby Jones ownership change, Crouse said. The city sought bids and the Conservancy and Mosaic submitted one proposing $15 million in upgrades and a lease payment of $150,000 a year for the first five years, escalating to more than $550,000 a year after 20 years.
The Conservancy turned out to be the only bidder, likely because most of the courses are too “distressed” to attract for-profit management companies, Crouse said. But the city “canceled the bid under the guise they couldn’t accept [only] one bid,” he said, adding the Conservancy does not believe that to be true.
The city then asked American Golf to remain as manager, but that company said no, Crouse said. That created a problem, he said, because American Golf owned all of the courses’ equipment, from golf carts to computer systems.
“We told [city officials] the city would have to come up with $1 million cash” to equip the courses and keep them open, and officials “freaked out,” Crouse said.
The city then opened a second bidding process in September of this year, and the Conservancy was again the only bidder.
“And the city said no, which left us absolutely flabbergasted,” Crouse said, adding that the city has not explained its decision. “We didn’t even get a phone call from Amy Phuong….There wasn’t even a thank-you.
“We are still trying to figure it out. It left some of my board members pretty pissed at the city,” Crouse said.
The city again “panicked,” Crouse said, and again unsuccessfully asked American Golf to remain. In what is apparently a permanent move, he said, the city was left to run the courses itself.
“The city stepped in Nov. 1 with a skeleton crew, having to replace everything, with no experience in doing this,” Crouse said. “It left all of us in the golf industry scratching our heads about, ‘What is the hidden agenda here?’”
The courses remain open under city management, but such issues as staffing levels are unclear. Phone calls to the North Fulton course’s managers were not answered, in some cases routing to full voicemail boxes.
Meanwhile, Bobby Jones is moving ahead under its own, separate nonprofit leadership under the Foundation with Mosaic as the short-term contracted management company. Amid all the Atlanta golf course management confusion, Elgison issued a press release emphasizing that Bobby Jones remains open as usual for the next year.
Elgison said the Foundation might have considered keeping American Golf as manager at Bobby Jones if a deal with the city for the other courses had worked out, though he added, “They were never friendly with us…We didn’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling.”
He also expressed surprise, partly due to his knowledge of Crouse and Mosaic, over the city’s rejection of the Conservancy’s bid, calling that bid “fantastic” and the “right thing to do.”
“I couldn’t tell you in a million years why the city decided to do what it did,” he said.