North Carolina city with Donald Ross municipal course that’s ‘overrun’ and ‘overgrown’ files $340K suit against management company

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The city has filed a lawsuit against historic Municipal Golf Course’s former operator Pope Golf, alleging deteriorating course conditions, destruction of property and $340,830 in outstanding lease payments to the city.

The complaint was filed with Buncombe County Superior Court on Oct. 4, over three months after the city attorney’s office sent a letter to Keith Pope, CEO of Pope Golf, based in Sarasota, Florida, advising that the city intended to initiate litigation over the past due lease payments, some of which have been accumulating since 2016.

Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, said the decision to file was made in the course’s first week with new operators, Commonwealth Golf Partners II — Asheville LLC, as “conversations kind of died” between the city and Pope golf. It is the first time in 10 years the property has had new operators.

As the historic Municipal Golf Course changes hands, under the leadership of new operators for the first time in 10 years, the city has filed a lawsuit against former operator Pope Golf, alleging deteriorating course conditions, destruction of property and $340,830 in outstanding lease payments to the city.

Until the filing, Corl had hoped to settle the matter outside of court.

“It got to the point that they stopped communicating, so we decided they weren’t planning to negotiate anymore,” Corl said.

Pope did not immediately respond to requests for comment. No legal response was filed by Pope as of Oct. 20.

The course itself has seen “steadily degrading conditions” over the last several years, according to the city, and at its center are significant stormwater drainage issues, which Pope said in September is the reason behind not only the course conditions but his termination of lease payments.

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 Black-owned and operated professional tournament in the country.

The city’s management and lease agreement with Pope Golf began Oct. 1, 2012, and expired Sept. 30.

As the historic Municipal Golf Course changes hands, under the leadership of new operators for the first time in 10 years, the city has filed a lawsuit against former operator Pope Golf, alleging deteriorating course conditions, destruction of property and $340,830 in outstanding lease payments to the city. (Photo by Angela Wilhelm/Asheville Citizen Times)

The lawsuit filing

The lawsuit filed by the city attorney’s office lays out a number of “unacceptable conditions,” what the filing says “developed as a result of Pope’s Asheville’s failure to meet its minimum maintenance obligations as set forth in Articles 8 and 9 of the Lease.”

These conditions include:

• Severe deterioration of all Bermuda grass fairways.
• The complete destruction of a chipping/practice area that had existed near the 8th hole at the time Pope Asheville assumed management of the course.
• The destruction of fencing along Swannanoa River Road.
• An overgrowth of vegetation throughout the virtual entirety of the course, including over the clubhouse.

According to the filing, at the conclusion of the lease’s term, Pope had failed to address and remediate any of the conditions noted by city staff in a Sept. 8 email.

Further, at the conclusion of the lease’s term, the filing alleged Pope had failed to make mandatory lease payments totaling $340,830. This amount is an almost $16,000 increase from the outstanding lease payment amount named in a June 29 letter from the city attorney’s office to Pope.

Corl said this increase resulted from additional accrued interest since the initial letter sent at the end of June. Prior to the filing of the complaint in court, finance updated the figures to reflect the current accrued interest as of the end of September.

The filing requests a jury trial, a judgement for compensatory damages, and an order declaring transfers of assets between Pope Asheville and Pope Golf, which led Pope Asheville unable to satisfy to city’s claims against it, to be void.

‘It’s a process’

Commonwealth Golf Partners, owned by Peter Dejak and Michael Bennett, immediately took over the course Oct. 1 in a seven-year license and management agreement, a new model of partnership with the city.

Despite being only three weeks into the transition, some golfers say they already notice a difference. On Oct. 20, a sub-freezing morning meant the clubhouse was all but empty at 8:30 a.m., but C.Y. Young was hard at work, more than game to take a golf cart out on the course.

He was old hat at navigating the crumbling cart path and sinkhole-pitted fairway, pointing out areas cleanup has already started, remarking on the most damaged holes along the back nine, where torn turf gives way to dirt and tree boughs overhang the course, stunting grass growth and impairing golfer vision.

The 122-acre course weaves through the East Asheville neighborhood of Beverly Hills. Early morning, the fairway was limned with frost, red, orange and golden foliage skirting the cart paths and rolling greens.

Young said the course is heading in a better direction, though there is much work left to be done.

He noticed the decline of conditions over the last two or three years since Pope Golf stopped making payments and the worst of the stormwater issues began.

“Pope knew they were going to lose out,” Young said. He’s been involved with the course for more than 20 years. He plays there four days a week and works as a starter and course ranger for another three.

Already, the new operators have made changes on the green ? aerating the grass, roping off areas so turf can regrow and staking off the worst of the holes that pockmark the course, in some places 6 feet deep chasms, exposing antiquated metal piping.

“It’s a process,” he said of the repairs. “But the golf course is doing better, it really is. They’re working on it.”

Corl agreed that change is coming for the better after “years of neglect.” He said Commonwealth Golf is getting started with smaller, day-to-day changes while they finalize the capital budget, what will determine the timeline and blueprint for changes to come.

The city is 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.

‘Friends of the Muni’

As well as new leadership at the course, both from Commonwealth Golf Partners and Corl, whose department only took over the course from Asheville Parks and Recreation Jan. 1, outside community efforts are also rallying around the beloved course.

Donna Bailey, an area golfer and chair of the Civic Center Commission, has been working for over a year to prepare a “Friends of the Muni” campaign, which would fundraise for the course’s rehabilitation and open up volunteer and program opportunities at the course.

She described the course as “overrun” and “overgrown,” a broken water system creating gullies, lifting the cart path and creating dangerous conditions.

“(It’s) a great piece of property, a Donald Ross course, that just needs somebody to care,” she said.

Like Young, Bailey said she can see positive change already under the new operators.

“They know their business and they care about their business,” Bailey said. “I don’t know if Pope knew their business or not. I have no way to judge it. But these guys have a track record of caring, and I’ve seen it just in the little things.”

Other state municipal golf courses, such as Charleston and Wilmington, have “friends of the muni” groups that have helped turn their courses around, said Corl. He hopes for the same in Asheville.

Bailey said Asheville’s muni is an “everyman’s” course, a place that is affordable, accessible and welcoming, home to a historic tournament whose players have been sounding the alarm for years.

“I care because it opens the door for so many people. I know what golf does, I know what it did for me. It opened so many doors,” Bailey said. “It opens the doors to friendships and opportunities, right there on the golf course. So I want to make it accessible to everyone.”

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.