An aerial view of Belmont Golf Course in Henrico County. (BizSense file photo)
Looking to get out of the golf business, Henrico County has begun fielding offers to formally farm out the operations of Belmont Golf Course.
The county issued a request for proposals Monday for all those interested in bidding on a long-term lease and operating agreement to run the municipal, daily-fee course at 1600 Hilliard Road.
The lease would include operations and maintenance of Belmont’s 18-hole course, practice putting area, pro shop, snack bar and meeting space. It does not include the neighboring county-owned tennis courts, rec center and surrounding parking lots, which Henrico would continue to operate and maintain.
The lease would begin Jan. 1, 2020 and run for a minimum of 20 years. The county would retain ownership of the 125-acre property.
Responses to the RFP are due no later than 3 p.m. Oct. 4.
The county will host a mandatory conference and site tour at 10 a.m. Sept. 11. The county said the meeting is mandatory for any groups looking to submit a proposal to the RFP.
Neil Luther, director of the Henrico Recreation and Parks Department, which oversees Belmont, said the county already has heard from around 20 interested parties leading up to the release of the RFP.
“There’s been quite a bit of interest already,” he said, adding that the interest has come from both local and regional entities.
“What we learned is that a lot of people were following the conversation,” he said. “And this time around we are very clear what we’re asking for and we think we’re to get a good operator.”
The RFP process is the culmination of a nearly two-year effort prompted by the county’s desire to rid itself of the oversight of a money-losing golf course that is in need of repairs. The process began with an informal request for information from potential operators, followed by community meetings about a master plan for the property.
The county has owned Belmont since 1977, when it purchased the course from original owner Hermitage Country Club, which had run the club since its inception in 1917.
The course has lost money nearly every year since 2000.
“Henrico County has determined that the direct operation of a daily fee public golf course is not a desired core function of local government,” the county states in the RFP documents.
The course opened in 1916 as part of Hermitage Country Club. (Michael Schwartz)
Key elements of the RFP include the county forgoing any lease payments or revenue share from the new operator, while also setting aside $500,000 in county funds to pay for renovations of Belmont’s bunker, a project the county already had approved but was shelved while it weighed options for the course’s future.
The county would operate the course through the end of 2019, before handing the keys over to the new operator, who would close it for renovations, including the bunker work.
Luther said the county prefers the bunker work be completed before the new operator reopens the course for play in April or May.
“Seventy-one bunkers need to be renovated,” Luther said. “We expect the operator to do that work and get it out of the way before the course reopens.”
The county also would provide up to $250,000 in additional capital funding in years two, three and four of the lease, with the operator having to seek permission before spending the money.
The operator also would be required to contribute annually a minimum of 5 percent of Belmont’s gross operating revenue equal to or above $1 million into a capital reserve escrow account. That account would be set aside for capital improvements and major repairs that will help preserve the course’s future, the county said.
The new operator will have the ability to set new fees for daily play and to sell alcohol onsite, which has been prohibited under county ownership and is seen as having held back the course financially in recent years.
The new operator would be required to provide the fleet of golf carts and pull carts, and a PGA Class A golf professional to work onsite.
Citizen input sought
The RFP also calls for the creation of a citizen Belmont Golf Advisory Committee to “apprise and advise the Board of Supervisors on all operating issues and concerns arising during the term of the lease and operating agreement.”
The committee would meet regularly and would include a county-designated representative.
Once all proposals are received, Luther’s office will whittle down the list to a group of finalists with which to negotiate, before recommending the top bid to the Board of Supervisors for ultimate approval.
Luther expects that will be presented to the board as soon as its November meeting.
Mike Hatch, owner of Birkdale Golf Club and Brandermill Country Club in Chesterfield County, said he’s interested to see the offers that come in for the RFP.
Hatch, who in addition to owning his two courses also manages Hanover Golf Club and offers consulting services to courses around the country, said he’s read through the RFP thoroughly but is still weighing whether it’s worth making a run at taking over Belmont.
He said it remains to be seen whether there’s enough room in the competitive local golf market for Belmont to hit the numbers an outside operator would need to make it worth their while.
“Is the course and location good enough to draw 30,000-34,000 rounds (annually)?” Hatch said. “That is what an entry-level public course needs to be successful.”
Belmont reported 25,000 rounds in fiscal year 2019, up from 21,000 in FY2018, according to documents included in the RFP.
Hatch also questioned how third parties will view the requirement of setting aside capital and having to work with the citizens advisory committee.
The process leading up to the RFP also coincided with efforts of a group of golf course architecture enthusiasts that in 2017 began to publicly urge the county to consider restoring Belmont’s layout to capitalize on its ties to its original designer, renowned course architect A.W. Tillinghast.
Belmont is noted as the only golf course in Virginia to host a PGA major, the 1949 PGA Championship won by native Virginian Sam Snead.