Friday, July 26, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Golf study recommends changes at Hancock, Muny

A study from the National Golf Foundation recommends that the city consider revamping the aging Hancock Golf Course at 41st and Red River streets and transforming it into a modern golf learning center.

This is just one of several recommendations in a lengthy report commissioned by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to address the city’s golf operations, improve efficiency and recommend improvements to increase future market potential. Both Hancock and the Lions Municipal Golf Course, known as Muny, have historic value and aging facilities.

While Hancock and Lions belong to the department’s golf enterprise fund, unlike the city’s other golf courses, they are not true enterprise operations because they do not generate more revenue than it costs to run them, the study says.

The foundation points out that the Hancock course “has been producing a relatively steady level of rounds and revenue, but its performance is not sufficient to sustain even a modest level of operational and maintenance expense. In addition, the course is in declining condition with many antiquated features that will require upwards of $700,000-$900,000 to repair and improve, and this enhancement is not likely to lead directly to increased revenue.”

The report suggests that the city could enter into an agreement with a private entity that can invest the funds needed to transform Hancock into a modern golf learning facility, “while retaining the historic nature of the property.”

Hancock is in Council Member Kathie Tovo’s district and she expressed concern that changes not only would damage the historic value of the course but drive away the golfers who currently use it. Hancock, which opened in 1899 as the Austin Country Club, is the oldest golf course in the state.

While Tovo said she was open to considering adding some elements to help new golfers learn the game, “the recommendations of leasing the whole course out are not options I’m willing to consider at this point … I think the Hancock golf course brings a value within its current configuration. I see it within a broader context right now.”

Tovo said she is concerned by the fact that she hears “more conversations about taking public assets and leasing them out to private entities driven by the profit motive. Yes, it’s a golf enterprise fund but it’s part of our public park system. … They need to be enjoyed and accessible to Austinites of different economic means. I would be concerned about moving toward leasing those out for private operations.”

Golf operations manager Kevin Gomillion was working on an irrigation system at Muny Thursday afternoon, but stopped long enough to talk about the study. He noted that there was a pump failure at the course and he had spent the day working on the problem.

When asked about the proposed changes to Hancock, Gomillion said, “It’s something we definitely had considered because the Hancock course has lost money for many years.” He said he was interested in a program that would introduce golf to people who hadn’t played before, especially young people.

“I think we need to get with the community … and see what the community supports, and that may take a couple months. But I think it’s an important step.” He said he was open to the idea of a third party operating the course as a learning center.

The city’s other historic golf course, the one that gets the most attention, naturally, is Muny. Under legislation sponsored by Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, the Save Historic Muny District has been created to help preserve the course, which is notable for being the first integrated golf course south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In order for the district to operate, it must have a board of directors. The course belongs to the University of Texas and the city pays $500,000 a year to lease it. The university has expressed an interest in selling the property but it remains to be seen where the city will find that money. Advocates are hoping that the Save Historic Muny District can raise enough money to permanently preserve the property as a golf course.

The district is in West Austin, south of 35th Street.

Under Watson’s Senate Bill 2553, appointment of the group’s five-member board is the responsibility of the following: the mayor of Austin and the executive directors of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Historical Commission, the Texas State Preservation Board, the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, Preservation Texas and the Texas director of the Nature Conservancy.

Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday that he has nothing new to report on the matter. A spokeswoman for Watson told the Austin Monitor to check back to see what is happening in August. Under the legislation, the board of directors must be appointed by Oct. 1. The board will have to arrange for a city ballot proposition asking residents of the district whether they want to pay a fee to assist in buying the property.

The study also recommended that the city continue its present form of self operation at Jimmy Clay-Roy Kizer, Morris Williams and Lions Municipal golf courses, and continue its contract at Grey Rock Golf Club.

Because of the high cost of the lease at Muny, the study recommended moving it out of the golf enterprise fund and into the general fund. The total estimated citywide capital investment needed for all of the facilities ranges between $6.4 million and nearly $8 million.

Gomillion noted that there was $4 million in the 2018 bond package for greens renovations at Kizer and Grey Rock and irrigation improvements at Jimmy Clay. Those renovations will start this winter and be done over the next two and a half years, he said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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