After nearly a decade of trying various models to make Holston Hills Community Golf Course a successful municipal operation, the town of Marion is opting out. However, officials have worked to ensure the future of the recreational amenity.
On Jan. 1, 2021, the Smyth County Community Foundation will assume ownership of the 74-year-old course with the town providing some financial support.
When Marion agreed to rescue the private 18-hole championship course from foreclosure in October 2011, the foundation loaned the town $1.5 million for its purchase from a cooperative of members. The loan was for five years at 2.5 percent interest. In 2017, the two entities renewed the note. Throughout the years, Marion only paid interest on the debt.
This spring, it became clear that the course’s future with the town was less than certain.
A change in rates and the end of memberships for the facility, which encompasses about 300 acres, drew fire from longtime users. At the same time the novel coronavirus pandemic was putting local governments in a financial crunch as meals tax and lodging tax revenues dropped. Those sources of revenue are used to fund many community-oriented projects, while other taxes go toward essential core services such as police, fire, and public works.
Town officials noted that Holston Hills was continuing to require subsidies of about $170,000 a year to operate.
Over the last four years, which included loan payments for carts and mowers and replacing the entrance bridge destroyed by flooding as well as debt service, the town has subsidized operations by more than $765,000.
Over those same years, Holston Hills’ food service, including the grill, banquet rentals and alcoholic beverages, has been a mixed picture, coming up short two years, going $8,100 in the hole in 2015-16, to making about $8,600 in 2017-18.
In a statement issued Tuesday evening, officials said they had determined that the best path forward was for the foundation to take over ownership.
“In recent months,” the statement said, “Holston Hills Community Golf Course has struggled to meet the requests of some in the community. Food service is very limited, and regular golfers have wanted to continue and expand benefits associated with memberships previously offered. The Town of Marion tried unsuccessfully over the years to provide additional services, but ultimately, fell short. As the pandemic forced business closings, Marion halted operations at Holston Hills to regroup, and spent time exploring options to improve the experience.
“We looked at all options in that off-time,” said Town Manager Bill Rush. “We met with golfers, members of the community, and examined operations at other municipal and private golf courses across the region and the state. We determined that, as a municipality, we just couldn’t compete with private commerce in our offerings. While having a golf course is absolutely integral to our community, there is just so much we can do as a town to support it.”
At a May town council meeting, Marion officials spoke openly of the possibility of selling the course as several golfers protested the changes.
By late summer, Mike Robinson, chair-elect of the foundation, said Tuesday that it became apparent that the town’s situation with the golf course had changed. The foundation approached the town to begin discussions.
Robinson said the foundation’s goal was to assure that the community didn’t lose the amenity.
The non-profit foundation exists to support Smyth County Community Hospital’s mission. Robinson noted that work includes identifying and supporting projects that benefit the physical, mental and emotional health of area residents.
In 2011-12, the decision to save the course was not without controversy. While many argued that the course could become a key component of Marion’s recreation department and would benefit quality of life and economic development as an amenity often sought by developers, others saw it as a drain on taxpayer dollars.
The town moved forward, incorporating the golf course and its accompanying pool, banquet facility and grill as well as fishing opportunities into the town’s recreation offerings. The town has also invested in Holston Hills, developing a popular driving range, rebuilding an entrance bridge, paving cart paths, performing some club house rehab, and updating the ballroom among other improvements.
Marion officials believe they’ve done a worthy job in moving the course forward.
“This is an important step forward for this community,” said Marion Mayor David Helms. “The Town of Marion was in a position in 2012 to keep the course from closing, and we believe we have been good stewards of the property. Over the past eight years, we have reinvested in the facilities to modernize it, and now, Holston Hills Community Golf Course is ready to serve our community and our region for years into the future.”
Officials still believe the course is a community asset.
“Having an 18-hole championship golf course in our town is an absolute amenity,” said Rush. “It adds to our overall offerings for quality of life, for golfers, for those who enjoy walking the course for exercise, for tournaments and community gatherings. It’s a vital center of our community. But there are things a municipality can and cannot do. By having the Smyth County Community Foundation own the facility, they will be much more flexible and agile to meet the shifting market needs.”
According to Tuesday’s statement, through this new partnership, “the foundation will be sole owner of the property and facilities, with a commitment to continue operations as a community golf course.”
Marion will support the effort by providing $50,000 “to help offset expenses and keep the facility open to the general public.”
Helms compared the financial support to similar arrangements with other community partners such as the Lincoln Theatre.
“We are proud of the accomplishments made at Holston Hills,” said Helms. “The facility is as nice as it’s ever been. We draw not only locals, but people from across the region to play golf, to compete in tournaments, and to enjoy events in the ballroom. Now, it’s time for the town to step aside and let the next chapter of this wonderful community golf course begin.”
Robinson believes Holston Hill’s future will be bright. He said negotiations are underway with a third party with a strong golf background to operate the course. He hopes more information about that prospect will be available in the coming weeks.
Holston Hills was originally opened as a nine-hole private golf course. In 1969, an additional nine holes were added. Holston Hills also includes a swimming pool, a pro shop, clubhouse, grand ballroom/meeting space, full-catering kitchen, grill room, patio, and driving range.
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