Editor's note: This is the first in an ongoing series about the future of Quail Run Golf Course. More stories examining the issue will be published in the coming weeks.
PGA Professional Brent McGrew hears it every time he welcomes fellow professionals to Columbus for tournaments and other events at Quail Run Golf Course. They rave about the layout, the setting near the Loup River and the split between a traditional and links-style environment.
For fellow instructors and golf professionals who are in Columbus for the first time, McGrew said they have pretty much the same reaction he did when he first took the job 13 years ago.
“It started when I first got here. I never knew exactly what I was going to get, never knew where Nebraska really was, to be honest with you, never knew what kind of course I was going to end up with,” McGrew said.
“We drove out there in March on a cold day, drove the back and I was very, very surprised. My personal opinion, as far as layout of the golf course, it’s the best public golf course within 100 miles. “I’d take the last four finishing holes at Quail against any golf course.”
Granted, it’s not the Prairie Club in Valentine or Wild Horse in Gothenburg, but for one round at either of those two courses, local players can complete multiple rounds in Columbus without spending extra on travel and lodging.
The parkland setting over the levee next to the Loup River is a unique location few other public courses have available.
It remains that way, just a little more than a month after historic flooding transformed fairways, greens and bunkers back to what Mother Nature had built before Frank Hummel, an architect of over 20 courses in parts of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Montana and Wyoming, carved out the city’s first 18-hole public course.
What to do now after 11 holes south of the dike have been destroyed is the question the Columbus City Council will take up once the damage has been properly assessed and options for the future are laid out.
When the plan was approved and construction began in 1989, Quail Run was built for just over $1 million. Decades after it first opened, the debate is about to renew again whether or not Columbus can continue spending money on a course that has not turned a profit at all in at least the last 11 years, according to city financial records, and has been damaged twice by flooding over a 26-year period.
1989 Council approves first 18-hole course
The Columbus City Council gave the go-ahead for Quail Run to be built, casting a 6-1 in-favor vote during a meeting held on May 1, 1989. Then-Council Member Sandra Riley was the only no vote.
As The Telegram described the scene nearly 30 years ago, an overflow crowd of mostly supporters was on hand in the council chambers that night. Residents provided 45 minutes of testimony following five years of study on the project and more than two hours of discussions in committees prior to that night.
Riley warned repeatedly that the course would not be financially solvent on its own, but concerns from residents mostly had to do with the lease agreement and the location – part of the course was built on top of a landfill.
A construction bid of $1,060,375 was accepted from Sioux-City, Iowa-based contractor Van Buskirk Construction and a $1.4 million, 20-year lease-purchase agreement from FirstTier Bank of Lincoln was accepted as the low financing bid.
Columbus was granted the loan with a 7.32 percent interest rate secured with the backing of city utility revenues. The City agreed to pay about $159,000 per year in lease payments starting in 1991 to satisfy the agreement.
Back then, it was calculated that 37,000 rounds of golf per year at $9.70 per round would be required for the course to pay for itself. Van Berg Memorial Golf Course had about 39,000 rounds played on it in 1988, according to the Telegram story recounting the council meeting.
After Quail Run opened, the City closed Van Berg after a consultant reported Columbus couldn’t support 27 holes of public golf and suggested making Quail Run the lone public option. A public petition and subsequent vote by Columbus residents reopened Van Berg not long after the closure.
Talk of closing resurfaced at a council meeting when then-City Administrator Joe Mangiamelli suggested it as a possible alternative to spending an expected $175,000 on fixing and updating an aging irrigation system.
But, Mangiamelli also mentioned during the meeting that due to a clause in the contract for the land, donated by the family of Marion Van Berg, residents would have to approve scrapping the course at the ballot box.
It never made it that far the second time around.
Improvements and additions
Quail Run was designed as a par-72 course with tee boxes that can shorten the course to just over 5,100 yards or lengthen it to over 7,000. The front and back nine both consist of two par 3s and two par 5s.
Holes 1, 2, 8 and 9 are north of the levee on the front nine, while holes 10, 11 and 18 are also north when playing the back nine.
In the 28 years since Quail Run first opened, only a handful of improvements and additions have been made, including upgrading the golf cart fleet, building a facility to house those carts and repairing the retaining wall on the irrigation lake south of the levee.
Funds were first set aside for the cart building in the course's 2011-12 fiscal year budget. By the time it was approved in 2015, the final project cost around $332,000 for a facility that’s a little over 4,000 square feet and features charging stations for 60 electric carts and extra space for cart maintenance.
After the city approved electric carts over gas, 20 were purchased and delivered starting in 2014. That project spanned three years and was completed in 2016.
Carts were also sold back to recoup some of the cost.
The retaining wall project was approved in 2016 at a cost of over $121,000 to stabilize the irrigation lake on the south side.
The lake, built at a size of 4 acres designed to keep the course watered, had panels in its wall not set deep enough into the lake’s sand. As a result, several panels shifted over time presenting a situation in which the walls could have collapsed and put golfers in danger.
In 2010, Quail Run hosted its first girls' state golf tournament. It has done so every year since then, beginning with Class C before the NSAA moved Class B to Columbus in 2015.
The course hosted its first boys' state tournament last year, also in Class B, and was set to do so again this May.
Quail Run has also started to host college events recently, including the 2018 Great Plains Athletic Conference Women’s Championship.
Damages and an uncertain future
The March flooding that ripped through Nebraska had a most profound impact on Quail Run.
City of Columbus Public Property Director Doug Moore worked for the city in a different capacity the last time Columbus and Quail Run suffered significant damage from flooding in 1993. But not even that was comparable to 2019, he said.
“The damage this time is much more severe than it was then,” Moore said during a recent interview. “Back then, it was basically clean-up and most of the clean-up was done by staff. We had to have a couple of contractors, but most of it was done in-house.”
This time, sand, measured by the tonnage, and debris, mostly tree branches and sticks in similar amounts, left the 11 holes south of the levee resembling anything but a golf course.
For the course to become what it once was, all of that sand, or at least, the overwhelming majority, must be removed. Even the amounts left deposited deep in the grass must find a way out or the fairways, greens and rough won’t receive the proper nutrients to grow and maintain form because of the barrier of sand on top.
Almost all of the trees were left standing, but many had bark stripped off 12-15 feet above the ground by the flow of ice chunks. While those trees may not be in danger of falling, they are now susceptible to disease.
The immediate steps taken were to try and find a way to remake the seven holes north of the dike into nine while cleanup and assessment determined the path forward.
That was done by utilizing the chipping green near the clubhouse and the nursery green west of the course.
Additionally, the original irrigation lake had to be drained due to the contamination from the flood. That was perhaps the most pressing early concern. The course still needed watering to survive.
“As far as the layout of the golf course, it’s all still there,” McGrew said. “It’s just under sand and debris.”
Since Moore first spoke two weeks ago, The Telegram touched base once more for updates earlier this week. In the initial interview, he indicated course and city officials would be meeting with members of the Turfgrass Science program from the University of Nebraska.
Those meetings were beginning this week. Input from the Nebraska Forestry Service will also be required, though those meetings have yet to take place.
Moore can’t say what should be done. His only job is to take the steps necessary to assess the damage, explore all the options and the cost of those options going forward and report his findings to the city council.
“My job is to come up with possible solutions to the problem we have,” he said.
The City sent out a press release on April 11 indicating it was working with its insurance carrier, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska EMA “to determine a plan of action at Quail Run Golf Course while taking extreme care to be good stewards of city resources.”
Since then, Moore said there were no further updates in terms of the amount of damage FEMA’s adjuster had calculated nor if, or how, the course will be repaired.
The deadline FEMA gave for gathering all the information needed to assess the damage was May 20. That’s the date Moore and his team are working toward wrapping up all the necessary fact-finding. At that point, there will still be a long way to go to determine what to do next.
McGrew said he remains hopeful his job will continue to include running tournaments, marketing and handling the day-to-day activities of Columbus’ only public 18-hole golf course.
“It’s not like we’re redesigning the golf course. The flood didn’t do that type of damage,” he said. “The greens and fairways are still there.”
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.