New advisory group charged with charting brighter future for golf course

New advisory group charged with charting brighter future for golf course by Dan McClelland
A new sub-committee of the town board is being formed to thoroughly dissect the operation of the Tupper Lake golf course and to recommend ways to help it flourish in the future.
The decision to create an advisory group came at Thursday's monthly town board meeting following a long discussion between members of the town board and the Tupper Lake Golf Course board, who had been invited that evening.  Representing the group that operates the town-owned golf course here were Mike Sovey, president, Gerry Goldman, vice president and Jim Boucher, board member.  Bruce Smith, a long serving past member of the board, was also joined the lengthy discussion.
The golf course representatives that evening welcomed the help of a new advisory group, which will be chaired by Town Councilman Mike Dechene, who currently serves with Supervisor Patti Littlefield, on the town board's golf course committee.
Membership of the new five- or seven-member group was not exactly nailed down that evening with the board giving Mr. Dechene  a week or so to talk to a number of people in the community with a golfing background who might be interested in serving.  Names suggested that evening included former golf course board members Ray Martin, John Moore, Ron Belleville, Steve Skiff and Steve Stevenson.  The committee will also include at least one member of the current golf course board, possibly Jim Boucher, who has an educational background in golf.  Golf Pro Evan LaBarge is expected to be a member.
President Mike Sovey began the dialogue Thursday evening, presenting the board with a tentative schedule of events there this coming season.
Town Supervisor Patti Littlefield called it “a pretty full schedule,” and Mr. Sovey said he was confident the number of planned events would grow.
“We're changing the way we're doing things this year!” He gave as one example, a new decision not to close the facility to public play on tournament days from now on.  “We lose too much money on those days” by closing the course to non-tournament players, he explained to the town leaders.
“We're really trying hard to turn things around to try to make as much money there as we can!” Mr. Sovey asserted.
The supervisor told Mr. Sovey and his colleagues that they had been invited there that evening “as a preamble” to a decision to appoint an advisory group to take a close look at golfing trends in general and here in particular with an eye to important improvements needed.
“We want to look at all the things that go into the running of a golf course- revenues, membership, maintenance, etc.” she told them.
She said her board “has been watching closely in recent years” the declining financial and membershiip situation at the golf course and would like to establish a committee.  “We know you are struggling and we want to help!”
The operation has seen many board member changes in recent years, staff changes and equipment problems, she noted.
She said there would not be more than two town board members on any new advisory group, and certainly not three as that would constitute a quorum of the board.
Financial problems and membership declines are a common problem for courses today, Mr. Sovey told here.  “A lot of courses are closing.  We're working very hard” to keep this one open!
Mrs. Littlefield reflected on the dramatic  decline in members.  “The members have dropped from 500 about ten years ago to 100, right?”
Mr. Sovey confirmed her analysis.
She said one of the big issues for her board is the outstanding debt owed to the town by the golf course board for the overhaul of the upper nine holes about 20 years ago.
Under the agreement, she said, there's supposed to be a $30,000 payment on the town bond  every year through the close of the current lease in 2020.
“You're a little behind,” so we've asked the country club board in recent months to tell us what it can pay each year and whether or not “it intends to fulfill its obligations” to the town and continue to run the club.
“Your contract expires in 2020 and we need to know if you plan to renew- and hopefully you will- and are you proposing to try to make those bond payments!”
The supervisor said the delinquent payments of $30,000 last year and $30,000 this year is money owed the taxpayers of the Town of Tupper Lake, who “footed the bill” for the course improvements.  “We feel we have to protect their investment...and that's why we're having this conversation tonight!”
Even though the town has retired the bond which covered the cost of the improvements, $120,000 covering four payments is still outstanding, it was noted by her.
“There was no payment last year, and this year we've said to you what is your plan? You have to give us something,” Mrs. Littlefield told the delegation.
She said some people in the community have suggested forgiving the debt but in checking with the state comptroller's office she learned the debt must be repaid to the town.
“We have to work together to figure this out!” she asserted, and Mr. Sovey agreed.
She said it was the recommendation of her board- after discussions at recent meetings- to create a town board sub-committee comprised of people here with an expertise in golfing “to take an outside look at what's happening at the Tupper Lake Golf Course” and the sport in general.
She said the advisors would be charged with looking at the entire operation.
Using the group's recommendation after a six- or seven-month study, “we'll all sit together and determine the best way to keep this thing going...whether it's the club that is running it, the town board running it, or putting it out to bid to a private party who would like to lease a golf course,” the  supervisor stated.
She said her hope is the two boards will find the best solution without a lot of disagreement.
“This is all for the good of the town and the course, because we all want it to succeed!”
“Don't you think this is a good idea?” she asked, to which the golf course representatives indicated they did.
“We all work very hard!” Mr. Sovey said of his board members.  “My phone rings more often from the country club than from my place of work.  “We're beating our heads against the wall to find ways to increase our revenues...and they're not there, not in Tupper Lake anymore!”
He said the current administration continues to reach out to visitors and out of town residents to patronize the local 18-hole facility. “But you can't bring in outside revenues if the integrity of our course is sub-par...no pun intended!”
The board in recent years has devoted a lot of its resources to maintaining the place, which has taken considerable man hours and payroll, according to the president.
The board, he said, is taking some of its direction from “our very young and energetic golf pro, Evan LaBarge.”
“We're putting a lot of our trust in Evan and hoping he can draw more people from his many golfing contacts!”
“Membership has declined so much it's killing us!”
He said that every year they pray for a good year...and each year they keep hoping this will be the year!
Gerry Goldman said the board “reorganized the staff” for this year and what he called “a positive development.”
He said they know there have been several revenue opportunities overlooked in past years which they hope to revisit.
There are also a number of new ideas they hope to employ.
“Unfortunately I don't think any one of those things can solve an organic issue in the sport today that people don't want to spend four hours playing golf.”  He said there have been all sort of ways suggested to cut playing time, some of which have “horrified” veterans of the sport.
He called some of the new rules proposed “ridiculous.”
Mr. Goldman said a golf course in Tupper Lake is incredibly beneficial to the community- both for its recreational value and its promotion of tourism.
He said when the Adirondack Club and Resort comes- and it looks like it's coming- it will need a golf course.  The developers have promised their investors that, he added.
“I don't see any way the golf course isn't present and running- as we go forward as a community!”
He said the debt incurred by the club when the improvements were done and financed by the town “is legal and I don't think anyone would argue we don't owe you the money,” he told the town leaders.  But when the debt was incurred we had 300 plus members and now we're down to 100!”
Mr. Goldman said that while the course continue to take in solid green fees each session, the dramatic loss of members and the $600 they each contribute each year is crippling from a financial standpoint.
Mr. Sovey noted that in the face of declining members the club recently offered a twilight league membership at a reduced price of $275.  He said while that helped somewhat it generated only a fraction of the funds paid by full members who have left over the years.  “But $275 is better than no money,” he explained.
Councilwoman Tracy Luton said an elderly golfer who served on the board when there was 300 members told her recently there are few places as impressive as the Tupper Lake Country Club, sitting on a mountain overlooking a lake.
“Many of us were hoping the (ACR) development was going to come sooner than it has” and the years of delay have left the future of the golf course hanging in the wind.  
The developers intend to require their new lot owners on Mt. Morris and the lands beyond to become members of the hometown course, which should dramatically boost membership over time.
Ms. Luton said the arriving resort will dramatically improve course finances.
Mr. Goldman said consistent leadership has been difficult there since Golf Pro Brent Smith left some half dozen years ago.  “We're probably had a turnover on our board approaching 30 people since then!”  Some of the board members who resigned aren't even members anymore, he added.
The frequent turnover in board membership has created “a lack of institutional experience,” he said he feels.
Mr. Goldman suggested four or five long-time golfers and golf course leaders here who should be considered for membership on the new advisory group.
He applauded the creation of what he called “a new planning committee between the two boards, because new, good ideas are a necessity for us now!”
The supervisor agreed with him “the older guys” will bring history to the discussions ahead.
Councilman John Quinn said both of the board have a big thing in common- neither one wants the golf course to close.
He said he didn't want to see the town board running the facility. “I want you guys to succeed,” he told the course brass.  “If there's any way that it can be done through a cooperative venture between you and  w the town or outside partners, let's do it!”
Jim Boucher spoke up at that point.  “I began playing golf there when I was ten!”  He said he attended a golf course maintenance course in college, and worked for a time at private courses downstate but decided later not to pursue a career in golfing.  He said joined PGA at one point and was a member for many years, with the help of Brent Smith.
He said he only  joined the golf course board in recent months, after taking up golf again last year.
“I think I have a lot of ideas” to help the facility which he intends to share at upcoming golf course board meetings.
“One of the last years I worked in golfing was at a big private club in Albany.  At one point it celebrated its 75th anniversary and three years later it went bankrupt.  So it's very common for golf courses to fail!”
Participation in the sport around the country is dwindling, and for small town golf courses like ours the fight to turnaround membership declines is even more difficult, he told the town board.
He said one thing he has noticed this past year is the absence of children on the course.  “We need to get more kids involved.”
During the years of operation of Big Tupper Ski Center here, free skiing was routinely offered to local children.  That same thing could be done at the golf course, he suggested.
The supervisor thought many volunteers will come forward to teach youngsters how to golf and run programs for them here.
Mr. Boucher expressed confidence there are many ways for the local course to improve its revenues through various new activities.
Mrs. Littlefield welcomed his input and ideas in the new improvement mission launched that night.
Like Mr. Quinn she said she doesn't want to see her board running the golf operation on Mt. Morris, but wants the current arrangement to succeed.  Mike Dechene echoed that sentiment too.
Gerry Goldman told the group: “This is a small town, and if we don't pull together, we're done. We may be done anyway, but if the work ahead turns into a cat fight between the town board and the golf course board,” the facility's future is grim at best.
The best way to avoid conflict between the parties is open communication, Mr. Quinn stated.   “We all must be able to connect in a timely and efficient manner.”
The comment was in reference to the  frustration among town board members several months last fall when Supervisor Littlefield and Councilman Dechene weren't informed of golf course board meetings.
When Mr. Sovey told him his board's next meeting was February 20 at the VFW post at 5p.m., the supervisor said he and Mr. Dechene would be there. She said they would be looking for the name of a golf course board member to serve on the new sub-committee.  She said too they would bring a list of knowledgable golfers with them who are interested in serving to share with the golf course representatives.
Mike Sovey said his board is currently in need of a new secretary/treasurer, in the wake of the recent resignation by Stuart Amell.
Mr. Goldman said it is important for the town to charge the new committee with specific tasks as part of the study work ahead.
The supervisor said they intended “to lay out their plan” in full at the March 8 town board meeting.