If the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen do not place a bid to purchase the 18-hole golf course from the City of Johnson City by the deadline of Feb. 7, the fate of the property and it’s future use will remain uncertain. The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen will vote in a special called meeting on Feb. 5 to decide on any purchasing plans. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Thursday, Jan. 25, the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee held its second meeting to discuss a proposal for the Town of Unicoi to purchase the course from the City of Johnson City.

Before discussing the purchasing proposal, new information was shared on the wastewater package plant that is to be included in the sale of the course, which has been a major concern for many of the committee members.

Jeff Linville, Town of Unicoi alderman and committee chairman, was informed by the City of Johnson City that the package plant generates $2,789 in average revenue per month and costs an average of $14,000 a year.

There are operating, equipment, material, lab testing and inspector costs associated with the package plant on top of additional expenses for sludge pumping activities. Linville was unable to find out who operated the plant prior to Johnson City in 1993, and received no response when he asked about renovations in the past decade.

“I just don’t like the wastewater treatment plant, and I don’t think we (the Town of Unicoi) have the capability or the manpower to operate a wastewater treatment plant,” Linville said.

He said that Johnson City would be willing to continue operating the plant for up to 12 months should the Town of Unicoi purchase the property. The current National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is set to expire in a few years, and whoever purchases the property will be required to get their own permit.

After speaking with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Glenn Rosenoff, Buffalo Valley Golf Course committee member, also learned that a certified operator and inspector will be required to run the plant.

While no one at the Unicoi Water Department is certified to operate a sewage plant, Rosenoff noted that TDEC should have a list of certified individuals within a nearby radius.

“It’s a big decision, not just for the committee, but for all of the people tied to the plant,” Rosenoff said.

Kent Bradley, owner of the apartment complex that is also serviced by the treatment plant, suggested that he would be open to the possibility of him taking over the operations of the package plant if the Town of Unicoi purchased the property.

• • •

Several golf course homeowners – Steve Williams, Glenn and Lori Rosenoff, Tyler and Brandy Bevins, Eric and Jamie Carroll, and Roger and Sharon Gardner – spent countless hours devising a detailed proposal plan for the Town of Unicoi to purchase Buffalo Valley Golf Course.

The proposal included a financial breakdown, review of equipment costs, administrative oversight structure, alternative outcomes, and a timeline for the purchasing and reopening of the course.

Based on official financial records gathered from Johnson City, Buffalo Valley Golf Course was averaging between $500,000 and $550,000 in expenses, around $320,000 in revenue, and experiencing losses from $160,000 to $200,000 each year.

The homeowners proposed an operating budget of $373,502, with $382,820 in revenues and operating profits of $9,318. Capital expenditures include golf carts, major mowing equipment, supplemental mowing equipment and additional pro-shop and course start up costs.

They presented several strategies to reduce costs that included reducing the number of golf carts to 40, “right sizing” of staff and utilizing volunteer labor, leasing of major mowing equipment, and establishing oversight through an organizational chart.

Rosenoff noted that the majority of the equipment that was last used at Buffalo Valley Golf Course was from the 1990s, and therefore would not be a large recurring expense.

“The life expectancy of some of this equipment is very impressive,” he said. “Of course it requires maintenance, but it’s not like a police car where you may only get eight years out of it.”

The proposed organizational chart would be headed by the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, followed by the Buffalo Valley Board of Directors, then a course superintendent, maintenance staff and pro-shop staff.

The Buffalo Valley Board of Directors would allow for more community involvement with the course and would serve to provide oversight, especially with finances.

To increase revenue, the homeowners proposed establishing a golf league, increasing online presence, establishing a social media campaign, and partnering with local businesses, not-for-profits, and educational systems.

The group mentioned establishing a golf course league separate from memberships to Buffalo Valley Golf Course. Costs for the competitive golf league would be $100 per year, and Buffalo Valley Golf Course would be the home course. The fees would go towards prizes and celebrations at the end of the year, but members of the league would be encouraged to play weekly in order to be competitive.  This would encourage more rounds played at the course, and potentially more memberships to Buffalo Valley Golf Course. In just a week alone, there are already 50 people interested in joining the league, according to the group.

“You are still picking up revenue, whether they are members or not,” said Eric Carroll, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member. “I do think 50 is a conservative number.”

Buffalo Valley Golf Course has previously had joint memberships with Pine Oaks Golf Course, also owned by Johnson City. The membership costs for residents have been $720 a year.

“That’s pretty much below every other place in the area,” Carroll said.

The homeowners have also devised a plan to increase community engagement, some of which includes partnerships and marketing with local businesses, educational partnerships, hosting tournaments for local businesses and utilizing the assistance of private donors.

“We have a lot of plans on bringing in the community,” said Brandy Bevins, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member. “I have even reached out to people outside of the town that are willing to work with us.”

One idea that Bevins has been working on is allowing local businesses to sponsor golf carts, and display a marketing logo on the carts in return. She said that several businesses have expressed interest in the idea.

“That could be a big revenue area, and it would also bring in the community,” she said.

Bevins spoke with the horticulture department at Walter State Community College and discussed the idea of pairing up to host the students for internships. She has also spoken with Unicoi County High School about utilizing Buffalo Valley as their home course.

The Elks Lodge in Erwin has offered to help with start up costs and some local business owners have offered to help with smaller maintenance items.

The homeowners group also cited several potential impacts that could occur as a result of the abandonment of Buffalo Valley Golf Course. The abandonment of the course could lead to diminished property values for Unicoi County residents and a decrease in property value assessments, resulting in lower tax revenue for the county.

This could also impact small businesses within the community and become a detriment to economic development due to a reduction in county resources.

“The whole golf course is tied to land,” Rosenoff said. “It’s not the improvements, not the buildings that you will see so much a decrease in the next little while, but it may be the land value.”

He added that there are more than 171 tax cards around the golf course, and there is more land yet to be developed.

“There is a linkage between the asset and the land … 130 acres in a town this size is a huge asset,” said Rosenoff.

The eyesore of an abandoned, overgrown golf course is another source of concern for the committee members, and the greens need to be treated by March 1 to prevent that from happening. Johnson City has agreed to perform some maintenance on the course, but they did not indicate how long they would continue doing that.

“There’s two chemicals, around $1,400 total, and if the greens do not receive that treatment, then in all likelihood those greens will grow up,” Rosenoff added. “The cost will be staggering to bring it back as a green, ready golf course.”

The timeline for proceedings to purchase the golf course proposed by the homeowners is as follows:   

Feb.5 – Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote on proposal

Feb.7 – request for proposal documents deadline for Johnson City

Bid awarded within 60 days

March 31 – all equipment to be put into place

April 1 – deadline to hire course superintendent and work with volunteer consultants to avoid delay in course maintenance

April 1 – course reopens.

• • •

“I will say on the town’s behalf that we can only do so much,” Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said. “We are willing to jump in and do what we can, but like I said we can only do so much. We could probably bid on the golf course up to $500,000, if they let us pay it over 10 years … but we can’t do that plus the startup costs.”

Linville responded to the proposal from the homeowners by stating that he liked the marketing plan, however he felt the course was better suited for private ownership.

“Things fizzle, so what’s the backup plan,” he asked. “Would the group be interested in forming their own association and using the fees to cover the startup costs … take the risk away from the town?”

Lynch clarified that if the homeowners started an organization, the town would lease the golf course to them, and it would be theirs to make money on or lose money on.

“That becomes a legal entity, and it’s a huge undertaking … do we have time for that,” asked Steve Williams, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member.

Lynch responded that if they were to bid on the property they could include plans for an organization to purchase the golf course from the town in order to buy the homeowners some time.

“If you had to build a golf course like this what would it cost you … three, four million,” Williams said. “When we open the doors we are going to have people coming in and generating revenue, so in two or three years you decide that you don’t want it anymore, at least you have a golf course property that is showing increased business.”

Lynch and Linville still felt that it would be best if the Town of Unicoi did not take on the responsibility of operating the course. Linville added that he has seen the golf course in its prime, and when it was struggling. He said it seemed to go downhill once it was operated by a municipality.

“That’s because it’s a municipality that basically didn’t want to work with the community, and a golf course is community property,” Williams said. “It’s all based on community, that’s how it works.

“Just from a morale standpoint … I’m tired of losing,” Williams continued. “I would like to have something positive come about for Unicoi County. Can we not come together as a county and city and realize the benefit for everyone to work together and make something happen?”

The Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee will hold one more meeting on Thursday, Feb.1, at 5:30 p.m. before the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote on any plans in a called meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, at 5:30 p.m.