Short of the green in South Hadley

Town looks for savings as Ledges Golf Club bleeds money

  • Left, Dan Kieffer, of West Springfield, Jim Dwyer, of South Hadley, and Pete Lally of Hatfield, play golf at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Dwyer of South Hadley T's off while his playing mates, Dan Kieffer, of West Springfield, and Pete Lally of Hatfield, Hadley, and Pete Lally of Hatfield, watch at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pete Lally of Hatfield, plays golf at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Greg Tudryn of Easthampton plays golf at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pete Lally of Hatfield moves on to the next hole while playing golf Wednesday at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley. Below, Greg Tudryn of Easthampton plays a shot. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 9/27/2017 9:22:07 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Facing ever growing budget constraints, the Select Board is taking a close look at the town-owned Ledges Golf Club.

Since its opening in August 2001, it has created a cumulative operating deficit of more than $1.6 million, according to a report compiled by Town Administrator Mike Sullivan.

Working with Town Accountant William Sutton, Sullivan found that, including capital losses, the course principal and interest as well as indirect costs for unemployment insurance, property and casualty insurance, liquor liability, and apportionment of salary costs, the course has run a deficit of more than $8.5 million.

The course and its expenses have long been a topic of discussion of the Select Board. At its Sept. 19 meeting, the board began to take a more structured look at the course’s finances.

“We have to frame this decision in terms of our financial picture: an increasingly strained budget versus a continual history of losing money — the town having to subsidize the golf course,” board member John Hine said at the meeting.

“We can talk about a lot of details but in the end, that is the basic question: To what degree does the town want to continue subsidizing that operation? That may be the case that people do want to keep that golf course open and are willing to realize that a $100,000 deficit may mean something we can’t do in another area of town.”

The 244-acre Ledges Golf Club was funded entirely by a general obligation bond approved by a special Town Meeting in October 1997. It cost around $5.6 million to build. At the time of its opening, town officials said they were confident the course would be a moneymaker but that it could take two to three years.

“The golf course revenues have not exceeded costs in any fiscal year and never has fulfilled the statements attributed to advocates during the discussion prior to establishing a golf course on the 200 plus acres of land,” Sullivan wrote in his report.

“It has and will likely will need to be subsidized with taxpayers’ money which has averaged $569K over the past fifteen years.”

Sullivan’s report comes at the request of the board for additional information about the course’s operating costs.

Board Chairwoman Sarah Etelman said Wednesday that it wasn’t one event that spurred the discussion.

“We look at year-end financials and as we are winding down the season, this is certainly not a surprise that the course has been having financial difficulties,” she said. “At some point, we have to take a serious look at what those difficulties are and how we want to move forward.”

Etelman, who remained mostly quiet during the discussion, said she was listening and taking in all of the input.

“We rely on the town administrator and town accountant to get us that financial information so at this point I’m listening,” she said. “I may lean one way or another but at this point not ready to vocalize it.”

The decision to close the course does not require a vote by Town Meeting but rather is at the discretion of the Select Board. The board could poll Town Meeting members “as to their collective position.” If the town put it forward as a ballot question, it would have a cost associated as well as a delay in the decision making, according to Sullivan’s report.

Even if the course were to close, the town is still responsible for the debt payments on the land and clubhouse borrowing through 2029. The town had paid more than $400,000 annually in interest and debt payments, according to numbers included in Sullivan’s report of the last five years.

Board members also discussed whether it would be possible to put out a request for proposals to find an outside company to manage the course at a profit for the town.

No matter how the town proceeds, the land would still be town-owned and it would need to be used for recreation because it was purchased with the help of state grant money with the stipulation it be used for that purpose.

At the meeting, the board did not take public comment on the issue. Etelman urged community members to email the board on the topic to share their opinion. Sullivan said Wednesday that the Oct. 24 Select Board meeting will allow for public discussion on the golf course and will be held in the town hall auditorium.

Golfers are sure to weigh in on the issue. Russ LaFrance, 70, told the Gazette on Wednesday that the South Hadley course is one of the most beautiful and well maintained golf courses in western Massachusetts.

“It’s the pearl of the Valley,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance, who has been a member of the Ledges for three years, said when weather permits he plays two to three times a week. LaFrance said he’s had friends visit from South Carolina who enjoyed a game with him at the club.

“I’ve never seen a more beautiful course,” he said.

Sullivan said he has heard feedback from residents about the beauty of the course, but he said that issue wasn’t in doubt.

“It’s just a dollars and cents conversation,” Sullivan said. “To make it more emotional than that or make it something more than that … it’s just about the money.”

Reporter Caitlin Ashworth contributed to this report.

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