Editor's note: This is the second in an ongoing series about the future of Quail Run Golf Course. The first titled "History and havoc at Quail Run" was published on April 27 and can be read on our website.
Columbus is in the midst of a conversation with itself that has been ongoing since mid March.
Lingering winter weather combined with a rapid temperature increase and wreaked havoc across Nebraska, specifically, south of Columbus at Quail Run, has resulted in intense local debates about what the future should look like at the city's only 18-hole public golf course.
More than half of the course, 11 holes to be exact, are located south of the levee. Rapid floodwaters carrying chunks of ice, some the size of automobiles, gashed and smashed their way through the fairways, greens and trees of the southern portion of the property that serves as more than half of the total course layout.
Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Landscapes Unlimited, part of the original group that built the course, have surveyed the damage and compiled - or are compiling - information for the city to consider.
In late May, Mayor Jim Bulkely said that while nothing had been decided, the city was in the process of getting "our ducks in a line" before the decision-making process could begin.
At a council meeting on Monday, Bulkley said the city had sat down with FEMA and got "some answers." Permission was given to move forward with cleanup, about 75 percent of which Bulkley said would be covered by the agency.
"So, we're walking through this process right now. I feel good that we've got some direction from them that we can seriously look at some of the options we've tried to put together," he said. "Staff has done more than I think the general public realizes in getting some options and some ideas of what we can do. Do we go back to exactly the way we were? Do we look at some alternatives? We've got to weigh that now, knowing what the financial impact could be, because one way could be this kind of reimbursement, another way may be another reimbursement."
But for more than 100 days now, residents of Columbus have been making their own arguments to Bulkley, the city council and each other about the course - focused primarily on how the local taxpayer will be affected.
It seems almost everyone has taken a side and turned the conversation about Quail Run into one of the most intense debates in Columbus history.
"I’m on the side of rebuilding it. My personal opinion is, they need to rebuild it because it brings something to the town," said Chuck Jensen, who has owned Stack-n-Steak restaurant on 23rd street for 36 years.
"You're always hearing people say how it loses money. I was on the park board for five years about 15 years ago, and there’s not a park in town that makes money because they’re an amenity. They get people to move to town. It’s one more choice. You’ve got a water park, baseball fields, golf course, schools ... They bring people to town."
Quail Run is a municipal golf course run by the city and subsidized through taxpayer money. It's unique in that sense. Compared to other small towns of similar size in Nebraska, Columbus is the only one with a city-run golf course. Courses in Fremont, Hastings and Norfolk are all privately owned.
Most are public as well, but the local government doesn't have a say in operations as it does in Columbus where the city council and mayor were most recently involved in the purchase of new golf carts and the construction of a shed to house those carts.
"I don’t know what it is. Maybe they could figure out a way to lay it out a little differently, I don’t know. It could happen again, but it’s been 25 years since it happened the last time," Jensen said. "The same people are dealing with floods and everything across the country. It could happen there again, too. They’re not going to pack up and go away either."
Jensen said he considers the future of the course in terms of what it means to the citizens of Columbus as a whole, not so much the taxpayer individually. Business owners such as himself, he said, benefit from such events as the NSAA boys and girls Class B state tournaments held at the course annually and the Women's Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament held last year.
Players, coaches, family and friends stay in the local hotels and go out to eat before and after, benefiting businesses such as his that he said can't be completely revealed by just reviewing the total cost of the course that is picked up by the taxpayer.
Janelle Young, an instructional designer who moved away from Columbus in 1992 then returned in 2014, agreed on the residual benefits of the course.
"There’s people complaining that it doesn’t make money, but does Columbus make money when the Class B tournaments come to town, kids stay in the hotels and visit the restaurants? That’s the kind of thing I don’t think anybody really looks at. Another hotel is being built. Who’s going to stay in that hotel if we don’t have these type of events?" she asked.
"I played golf in high school, so I know what that’s like to go to North Platte, to go to Kearney and spend the night, stay in hotel and go out to eat. So, there’s an income to the town that I think people don’t realize happens."
Shawn Howell, the owner of Squeaky Clean Window Washing and Randy's Tree and Stump removal, believes the city has come too far, at this point, to simply abandon the course's future.
"I’ve watched it develop all through the years, even before the flood. It’s been an ongoing project, and I don’t see the sense in just abandoning it. That’s just the naysayers who don’t like the whole golf thing," Howell said.
"My perspective is, we’ve gone this far. I’ve been around long enough to watch the beginning of Quail Run, how long it’s been there and how long it’s taken to develop it. I don’t see why you would come all this way just to back out of Quail Run. Then what would you do with it? Just let it go? I don’t see the sense in that."
Those naysayers would point to the fact that, according the last 12 years on the ledger of Quail Run, the course has failed to make any profit, regularly losing $300,000 or more.
City financial numbers over those 11 years, the only numbers available, indicate an average loss of $389,226. The average income was $583,354 while the average expenditure totaling $936,580.
Expenses rose every year from 2008 to 2013, increased to a high of $1.3 million in 2016, due to the golf cart and golf cart shed projects, but decreased to $976,498 last year.
Revenue has increased every year since 2013 from $511,523 to $627,905 in 2018.
"The night they were going to make that decision on the golf course I told Larry Merrick, who was the mayor, I told Larry, 'Don't build it. You're going to get flooded,'" Dick Ternes recalled about the city council meeting held May 1, 1989, that approved the building of the course.
"He told me it was maybe a 50 percent chance, if I remember our conversation. That's just not the place to build a golf course because it's going to get flooded, end of story. They also didn't listen with respect to financing, to (former council member) Sandra Riley. She had it right. The rest of those people had it wrong. They just don't listen."
Riley was the dissent in a 6-1 vote at that meeting, accepting a bid of $1,060,375 to build the course. A lease-purchase agreement of $1.4 million from FirstTier Bank was approved as the low bid for financing the project.
Compared to two other major municipally-run properties, Quail Run is the only one of the three that loses money.
However, for the Aquatic Center and Pawnee Plunge, revenues have to match expenses because both are supported by sales tax in accordance with a sales tax ballot passed by citizens of Columbus.
Financial records were also requested for the football and baseball fields at Pawnee Park, but those are part of the general parks system and could not be specified individually.
Pawnee Plunge's major revenue comes from admissions, the cost to get in to the facility. That number has steadily risen since 2011 from $167,639 to $206,597 last year. The high was $209,871 in 2017. The money brought in for passes each year has also regularly increased from $30,048 in 2011 to $77,999 in 2018.
The city and state sales tax that makes up the difference was $313,712 last year and has averaged $287,568.
The Aquatics Center has seen admissions drop every year since 2013 from a high of $39,146 to $16,240 in 2018. Passes have gone up, but only slightly from $13,131 to $17,096. There was a high of $23,288 in 2017.
The average cost to the taxpayer for city and state sales tax during the last eight years is $378,636.
Quail Run and Van Berg are supported by the general fund made up of property and sales tax and do not have a ballot measure attached forcing the courses to break even.
Thus, while comparisons between Quail Run, Pawnee Plunge and the Aquatics center aren't exactly apples to apples, Quail Run consistently outpaces both in terms of revenue generated outside of city and state sales tax.
With money from cart rentals, foot golf, greens fees, punch cards, passes, concessions, the driving range and liquor revenue figured in, Quail Run produced at least $430,000 in revenue from 2008 to 2013 and has made more than $500,000 each of the last five years.
The high in revenue for Pawnee Plunge minus city and state sales tax was over $392,000 last year. The Aquatic Center averaged about $100,000 in revenue over the past eight years minus taxpayer subsidies.
The average amount city and state sales tax needed to support Pawnee Plunge over the last eight years is $287,568. For the Aquatics Center the figure is $366,136.
The highest amount of city and state sales tax applied to Quail Run during that same period was $34,039 - about one-tenth of what supports the Aquatics Center and about one-eighth of what's needed for Pawnee Plunge.
However, those against rebuilding Quail Run could also point out the total expenses for the course are also typically at least twice as much each year as the other two properties.
The Telegram reached out to several local citizens who expressed their opinions about Quail Run on Facebook but none that were opposed to rebuilding responded to requests to comment on the record.
Ternes was the only one who shared his thoughts.
And he's not necessarily against rebuilding, just rebuilding in the same spot.
"(The city) forgets or doesn't want to remember our history. You just simply can't ignore the river's history. That dates back to the 1800s. You certainly don't want to put public property in a flood plain," he said. "The people that are building privately, that's different.
"I certainly don't want to rebuild south of the dike. It doesn't make any sense. It's going to get flooded."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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