ASHEVILLE (N.C.) — The city filed a lawsuit against Pope Golf, the former operator of the historic Municipal Golf Course. It alleged that Pope Golf caused deteriorating conditions and property destruction, as well as $340,830 in unpaid lease payments to city.
Buncombe County Superior court filed the complaint on Oct. 4. This was three months after Keith Pope, CEO, of Pope Golf, sent a letter to the city attorney advising that it intended to commence litigation regarding past due lease payments. Some of these have been accruing since 2016.
Chris Corl, the director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities in the city, stated that the decision to file was made within the first week of the course’s new operators, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC. This is because “conversations kinda died” between the city and Pope Golf. This is the first time the property has seen new operators in 10 years.
The historic Municipal Golf Course is being sold by the city. New operators have taken over the operation. Pope Golf was sued by the city. They claim that the course conditions are worsening, property destruction and that the city owes $340,830 in unpaid lease payments.
Corl had intended to settle the matter out of court until the filing.
Corl stated, “They stopped communicating and so we decided that they were not planning to negotiate anymore.”
Pope did not respond immediately to any requests for comment. Pope did not respond to requests for comment as of Oct. 20, 2018.
According to the city, the course has experienced “steadily degrading” conditions over the past several years. At its core are significant stormwater drainage problems, which Pope stated in September was the cause of not only the course conditions, but also his termination lease payments.
Donald Ross, a Hall of Fame golf architect, designed the 18-hole course. It opened for play in 1927. The tournament is the oldest-running Black-owned professional tournament in the nation.
The management and lease agreement between the city and Pope Golf was signed Oct. 1, 2012 and ended Sept. 30, 2013.
The lawsuit filing
The city attorney’s office filed a lawsuit describing a series of “unacceptable” conditions. It claims that the filing was “created as a result Pope’s Asheville’s failures to fulfill its minimum maintenance obligations as laid out in Articles 8 & 9 of the Lease.”
These conditions include:
* All Bermuda grass fairways are in severe condition.
* Complete destruction of a practice/chipping area located near the 8th green at the time Pope Asheville took over management.
* The removal of fencing along Swannanoa River Road.
* A dense overgrowth of vegetation on the entire course, including the clubhouse.
According to the filings, Pope failed to address or remediate any conditions that were noted by city staff in an email on Sept. 8.
The filing also claimed that Pope failed to make $340,830 in mandatory lease payments at the end of the lease’s term. This is almost $16,000 more than the amount of the unpaid lease payments that Pope was notified in a June 29 letter from Pope’s city attorney.
Corl stated that this increase was due to accrued interest from the original June letter. Finance updated the figures prior to filing the complaint with the court to reflect current accrued interests as of September.
The filing seeks a jury trial, a judgment for compensatory damages and an order declaring assets transfers between Pope Asheville, Pope Golf, which caused Pope Asheville to fail to satisfy the city’s claims.
“It’s a process”
Commonwealth Golf Partners, which is owned by Peter Dejak, and Michael Bennett, took the course over Oct. 1, in a seven year license and management agreement. This partnership model was a new one with the city.
Some golfers already see a difference even though they are only three weeks into the transition. C.Y. was able to fill the gap when it was sub-freezing on Oct. 20. Young was busy working and more than happy to drive a cart on the course.
He was an old hand at navigating the sinkhole-pitted fairway and cart path, and he pointed out the areas where cleanup had already begun.
The course runs through East Asheville, Beverly Hills. The fairway was limned early in the morning with frost, red and orange foliage that swung by the cart paths and rolling greens.
Young stated that the course is moving in a positive direction, but there is still much to do.
He observed the decline in conditions over the past two to three years, since Pope Golf stopped making payments.
Young stated that Pope knew they would lose out. Young has been involved in the course for over 20 years. He plays four days per week, and is a starter and ranger for three more.
The new operators have already made improvements to the green, including aerating and roping off areas for turf to regrow, as well as staking out the worst holes on the course. In some cases, 6 foot deep chasms expose antiquated metal pipes.
He said that the repairs were a slow process. The golf course is improving, it is. They are working on it.”
Corl said that the time has come for change after years of neglect.
The city will embark on a $3.5million project to start capital improvements. It is looking for grant funding from Buncombe County Tourism development Authority and other sources.
The funding requested would be used to fund stormwater infrastructure, water collection and upgrades to tee boxes. It also covers green and sand trap improvement.
“Friends of the Muni”
Apart from new leadership at the golf course (both from Commonwealth Golf Partners and Corl), whose department took over Asheville Parks and Recreation’s course Jan. 1, outside efforts are also being made to support the beloved course.
Donna Bailey, a local golfer, is the chair of the Civic Center Commission. She has been working over a year on a “Friends of the Muni” campaign. This would raise funds for the rehabilitation of the course and offer volunteer and program opportunities.
She described the course to be “overrun” by “overgrown”, a broken water system causing gullies and lifting the cart path, creating dangerous conditions.
She said, “It’s a great piece, a Donald Ross course. It just needs someone to care.”
Bailey, like Young, said that she already sees positive changes under the new operators.
Bailey stated that “they know their business and care about their company.” “I don’t know if Pope knew their businesses or not. It’s impossible for me to say. These guys are caring and I have seen it in the small things.”
Corl said that other state municipal golf courses like Charleston and Wilmington have “friends-of-the-muni” groups which have helped them turn around. Corl hopes to see the same thing in Asheville.
Bailey stated that Asheville’s municipal is an “everyman” course. It is accessible, affordable, and welcoming. This is home to a historic tournament, whose players have been raising the alarm for many years.
“I care because it opens doors for so many people. Golf is something I am familiar with, and I can attest to its benefits. It opened many doors,” Bailey stated. It opens doors to friendships, and offers many opportunities right on the course. It is something I want to make accessible to everyone.
Sarah Honosky, the Asheville Citizen Times’ reporter on city government, is part of USA TODAY Network. News Tips Email [email protected] or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.