ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Keith Pope remembers standing on the 13th green of the Municipal Golf Course 10 years ago, grass underfoot giving way to dirt, and wondering if the course was a challenge worth taking on.
“The course is in really bad condition,” Pope, CEO of the Sarasota, Florida-based company Pope Golf, remembered saying. “What can we do?”
Now, a decade later, Pope Golf’s lease is up. Since October 2012, the company has been responsible for daily operations and maintenance of the historic Asheville golf course. Its lease with the city expires Sept. 30, when the course will inherit new operators and a new model of management.
But Pope is leaving the course in the midst of a dispute over $324,934 in outstanding lease payments to the city.
The 18-hole golf course was designed by Hall of Fame golf architect Donald Ross and opened for play in 1927. It is home to the longest-running professional tournament in the country owned and operated by Black golfers.
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The course itself has seen “steadily degrading conditions” over the last 10 years, according to the city, and at its center are significant stormwater drainage issues, which Pope said is the reason behind not only the course conditions but his termination of lease payments.
“We really had much higher hopes of what we could do with the golf course when we took over than what eventually happened,” Pope said. “We fought this stormwater drainage problem almost the entire time we had the lease.”
Pope argues that repair of stormwater improvements ? failing infrastructure that carries a price tag of more than $2 million, according to a 2020 report by civil engineering firm McAdams ? falls to the city.
“They’ve been promising me for seven years they were going to fix the drainage, and they never did,” Pope said of his decision not to pursue contract renewal. “So I couldn’t take the financial risk.”
Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, whose department oversees the course, said stormwater responsibilities fall to the lessee, in this case, Pope Golf, as part of general upkeep and maintenance.
This discrepancy rests at the crux of the dispute over back payments, with the city threatening legal action.
Why withhold lease payment?
A June 29 letter from the city attorney’s office to Pope advised that the city intended to initiate litigation over the past due lease payments, some of which have been accumulating since 2016.
Corl said on Sept. 22 that the legal department continues to be in communication with Pope’s attorney, and no lawsuit has yet been filed.
Pope said he doesn’t have an opinion on the ongoing legal conversations, though he confirmed his attorney is in discussions with the city.
Pope Golf stopped paying any of the lease amounts in June 2019. Pope said he informed the city in 2019 that he was going to begin withholding payments until stormwater issues were addressed. Alternatively, he would submit his 180-day notice to the city to terminate the agreement.
He provided the Citizen Times a June 2019 email from Patrick Warren, Pope Golf’s general manager of the course, to Christie Bass, a resource manager within Asheville Parks and Recreation. In it, there is a reference to someone with utilities coming to look at the course, as well as a line that reads, “Also have you told Roderick about Pope withholding lease payment yet?”
Corl’s department assumed responsibility for the golf course in January 2022. Until then, the course fell within the Parks and Recreation Department. Roderick Simmons was then director of Asheville Parks and Recreation. Simmons retired in 2021.
Pope said he informed Simmons he would be withholding the payments or terminating his contract and was told the city did not want the course back. Pope said he did not get anything in writing.
“The city washed their hands of it,” Pope said of the course. “There was never any interest in meeting with us to talk about any of it.”
In September 2019, three months after he stopped lease payments, the city extended its lease agreement with Pope Golf for three more years. According to the terms of renewal in the lease, extension is contingent on there being “no default under this agreement” by the lessee prior to the expiration of the initial term.
At the time of extension, by Sept. 1, according to the city’s billed amounts, Pope was at least $37,552 behind on payments.
Corl said in his conversations with Pope about the outstanding payments, which began in January, Pope has relayed the same information to him.
“We haven’t been able to corroborate it anywhere, there is nothing in email. Christie has also said they never approved him not paying payments just until we fix the stormwater,” Corl said. “There is nothing there.”
Even if a verbal agreement were made, Corl said, Simmons would not have had the authority. The adjustment would have had to go through Asheville City Council and a written addendum would have been required, neither of which happened.
In hindsight, Pope said he wished he had given notice to terminate the contract in 2019.
“Because with the new regime, they started asking for the back payments, and clearly I felt like it was clearly discussed with the city,” Pope said. “I have emails saying they were aware of it, and they were fully on board with it or they wouldn’t have given me an extension three months later.”
In response to the issue of a contract extension, Corl, who was not involved with the golf course at the time, said it was possible that the lease was extended before the city realized lease payments had stopped, as the events nearly overlapped, and extensions can take 30-60 days.
“I was very upset that it looked like one day I was hiding and just decided not to make payments, which was absolutely not true,” Pope told the Citizen Times of prior reporting on the back payments.
The Citizen Times reached out to Pope for comment in August after previous reporting. He responded on Sept. 12.
“No, I didn’t just stop making payments one day. Yes, I had conversations with the city, who then gave me an extension. And the city never said a word to me until three years later.”
This was a topic of interest at the Sept. 1 community meeting held to introduce the community to the course’s new operators: Why did it take the city three years to take action if lease payments were withheld since 2019?
Corl said he couldn’t speak to the decisions of the prior managers of the course, but when he took over the responsibility, despite nonpayment, he couldn’t afford for Pope Golf to walk away without a plan in place.
Without proper care, he said a green can die in less than three weeks. The city chose to continue working with Pope in hopes of resolving the issue.
“I wanted to be ready to turn around and reopen the course if they did indeed walk,” Corl said. It took him several months to get contingencies in order.
Left in poor condition, what comes next?
Many golfers have been outspoken about the condition of the course, calling it “deplorable” and attesting it had been allowed to “languish” over the last several years.
The faults are wide-ranging, according to golfers: sand traps with no sand, an overgrown green, sinkholes caused by the antiquated drainage system, soil erosion and broken cart paths.
Per the lease agreement, in order to facilitate capital improvements and investments by the lessee, Pope Golf and the city were supposed to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding six months into the execution of the lease. The MOU was intended to include specific projects to be implemented over a seven-year period, with a project schedule developed by the lessee and approved by the city.
The city and Pope Golf were also meant to agree on a seven-year capital funding schedule for the improvements, in which an agreed-upon percentage of revenues would be set aside.
Neither the MOU nor the capital funding schedule was ever created, a fault Corl said the city and Pope share.
Some efforts were made to address stormwater repairs during the 10-year lease, Pope said, including the use of $265,000 in lease payments by the city to install irrigation around the back nine greens of the course.
Corl confirmed there was work by the city to do stormwater line repairs on the back nine, and some small repairs done by Pope with in-house crews.
The city initiated the McAdams study, which was done in 2020, to assess the existing storm drainage system throughout the Municipal Golf Course to better prioritize and budget necessary repairs.
This time, as the course prepares to change hands, Corl said they built in assurances. The transition to a new operator, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville, will take the form of a licensing and management agreement, rather than a lease agreement, which gives the city more control.
The city is also embarking on a $3.5-million project to initiate capital improvements and is seeking grant funding from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, along with other sources.
The requested funding would cover stormwater infrastructure, water collection, tee box upgrades, and green and sand trap improvements.
Corl acknowledged that Pope has made some improvements since 2012, but other areas of the course are in “much worse shape.”
“There have been lots of things that they have let go. There’s certainly things that they have improved upon,” Corl said. “They’ve done good, too. But there is definitely some bad in there with the good.”
Corl said the issues extend far beyond those caused by stormwater failures.
“Even through all of this, Pope Golf has been good to work with for part of the transition, they’ve been good stewards of the course itself, and they’re helping transition into the new operation, new structure,” Corl said. “I think that says good things about Pope Golf, the fact that they are willing to work with us through all of this and they’re still honoring their obligation through the end of the lease.”
Pope said despite the dispute, he has enjoyed his time in Asheville and working with the city.
“With what’s happened over the past nine months or so, I can’t say that I’m not happy to be leaving,” Pope said. “I really like the people there. I love the golf course, I love the people that play there, the employees there; I wish them the best of luck. I hope that they can make the improvements that Chris is talking about.”
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.