City explores new options at Winding Creek

Debt about to be retired
Mar. 19, 2013 @ 10:14 AM


Twenty years ago, the City of Thomasville decided to invest in a golf course.
Faced with state-mandated expenses for closing down the local landfill, city officials embarked on a controversial plan known as Winding Creek, a golf course born with the hopes that it would become a recreational facility Chair City residents and visitors would value for years to come.
As the city draws closer to making its final payment on Winding Creek, those who supported the project from Day One are feeling a sense of relief and satisfaction for an idea that wasn’t always met with overwhelming support. 
“It's nice to finally get the burden off of a place that I've made my career,” said Jason Gentel, Winding Creek’s golf pro since 1996. “Paying off the debt really excites me. It was costing $380,000 a year and I think a lot of the Council people heard it. It's going to be nice to get that behind us.”
Winding Creek is expected to be paid for in June. Refinanced in 2003, Winding Creek faced heavy scrutiny from people, particularly around election time, who thought the $6 million of taxpayer money should be used for something else beside a 165-acre golf course. With the deed in sight, city officials are ready to move forward with a facility that now can start making a profit.
“I see this as being a long-term project that started more than a decade ago,” Councilman Raleigh York said. “The focus often has been the debt incurred from building the golf course. As time went on, it has matured to what is now a nice municipal golf course. With us getting ready to make the last payment, you can see this as an accomplishment for us to come to this point. We’re pleased with that.”
While the golf course isn’t projected to be a cash cow for the city, as the economy still is impacting recreational activities, Winding Creek has been breaking even of late and could start making a profit should the Great Recession finally end. Gentel said the national golf market is down nearly 20 percent in the past five years, yet Winding Creek’s number have held steady. An estimated 30,000 rounds of golf are played at the course every year. Cutbacks made in 2006 helped stabilize the course’s operating budget and get it to the break-even mark.
“We're a very affordable golf course and that's what keeps us going,” said Gentel. “Our numbers have been pretty steady since 2006. We've had a rough time with the economy, but they have been steady. With that being said, we're able to hold our own and it's just going to get even better once the note is paid off. There seldom will be a year where we don't make what we spend.”
Once the note is paid, Gentel has a list of projects he hopes the city will approve that he feels will improve the course and attract more people to the sport. As Winding Creek nears it 20th birthday, Gentel said its greens are in need of attention and a few holes could use slight facelifts.
If funding is available, Gentel would like to flatten and expand the green on Hole 7 and install a nursery green or sod farm to be used throughout the year. A nursery green would allow groundskeepers to replace sections of greens and have them ready within weeks instead of waiting until the following spring. Bermuda grass also has started taking over Winding Creek’s greens by as much as three to four feet on some holes.
“That's what the Bermuda has taken over in 17 years,” said Gentel. “The greens are just getting a little bit smaller. I'm hoping we can get some projects going that are long overdue done. I'm not asking for $1 million or anything but it would be nice to have some small projects get done.”
York said Council hasn’t made any final decisions on the financial future of the course, but getting the note paid off opens the door to a number of options.
“Over the past few years, the golf course has some projects they would like to undertake at some point,” York said. “There is a possibility some of that can get done. There are a number of ways you can go in other areas of the city.”
When York first was elected to Council, he said the city explored the idea of either selling or leasing the course. The decision was made to keep Winding Creek and streamline the workforce to keep it viable.
“Hopefully now its become an asset that will pay off as we move forward,” said York. “We would love to see more families take advantage of the course and I think [Gentel] has some good ideas. I think we can get some real good things over there and take it to the next step.”
Gentel plans to make Winding Creek more accessible to the community, especially children. Gentel plans to develop and expand partnerships with the YMCA and Parks and Recreation to bring more kids to the course. 
“It’s going to be very affordable,” said Gentel. “Golf is a very expensive sport. For some of these kids who can't afford it, we want to get a club in their hands and see if they like it. We're very junior friendly out here.”
To promote the sport, Winding Creek will offer free pizza and a short lesson on April 4 and 5. Starting this summer, the course will hold pizza night every Thursday at the driving range. Lessons, club fitting, club repair and swing analysis will be available for players of all skill levels.  
“Right now, we're going to get really serious about it.” Gentel said. “ These are ideas that definitely are going to help the city promote golf.”