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Back-to-back nights of informational, controversial and often cantankerous meetings held inside the clubhouse at Quail Run Golf Course this past week may one day be remembered as the moments when the future of public golf in Columbus was preserved as it is currently enjoyed.

At least, that's what organizers of a yet-to-be-formed golf association hope and believe.

Wednesday and Thursday night after Men's League competition at the course, league members and interested golfers met with the purpose of learning what details and updates were available about the future of the southern portion of Quail Run.

Some of those details included three options for the future, the potential closing of Van Berg Golf Course and a possible transition from golf pro led leadership at Quail Run to a management company instead.

Information was shared by City Councilman Ron Schilling at the request of a small group of meeting organizers who felt they, and city residents as a whole, were being left in the dark about whatever information local government had on the course's future and where the city was in the decision-making process.

Schilling read a statement from Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley that was delivered at the bi-weekly council meeting earlier this week, shared some of his personal opinions and suggested the formation of a golf association to protect and preserve the way golf is currently played in Columbus.

"And I think the golfers need to have a say," Schilling said in an interview after the Thursday night meeting.

As Columbus residents should now be familiar, 11 holes south of the levee were damaged, ravaged and destroyed by floodwaters and ice chunks brought on by those same March floodwaters.

Since then, the southern portion of the course has been left mostly untouched, two extra holes have been engineered north of the levee and Quail Run has operated with a nine-hole layout.

But organizers of the meetings invited Schilling to attend to get his insight, as well as to hear what the next step are in the process and where the city stands in determining to rebuild, relocate or abandon Quail Run.

On both nights, Schilling read to the groups a statement Bulkley presented at the city council meeting earlier this week.

That statement included that, after meeting with FEMA representatives, Bulkley felt the city had three "avenues" to pursue:

1. Do nothing and leave Quail Run as it has been adjusted after the flood to allow for a nine-hole layout north of the dike.

2. Rebuild as close as possible to pre-flood conditions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may cover as much as 75 percent of the estimated $2 million needed for repairs.

3. Move all of the course north of the levee with the purchase of new land at a cost of construction and land purchase of $6 million.

In the statement, Bulkley proposed to move forward with the second option. However, with some caveats.

"With the rebuild must come a management and operational philosophy that sees Quail Run as a business. We must recognize that revenues and expenses have got to be watched and checked," Bulkley said. "Just because this is an amenity does not relieve it from being run in a fiscally responsible manner."

In the 12 years of financial records available from the City of Columbus for Quail Run Golf Course, the course has averaged an annual loss of over $389,000.

On the other hand, the course also regularly produces more than $580,000 of income and requires less city and state sales tax support as the municipally supported properties Pawnee Plunge and Columbus Aquatic Center.

But those facilities are also supported by a ballot initiative passed by Columbus voters forcing Pawnee Plunge and the aquatic center to break even every year.

The loss on the golf course is made up by subsidies from the city's general fund - made up primarily of property tax receipts but also other revenue like licenses, permits and fees, a portion of sales tax, utility taxes and franchise fees.

In addition to Bulkley suggesting a philosophical change to Quail Run as a business, he also reintroduced an argument that was debated and voted on nearly 30 years ago.

"Columbus cannot support 27 municipal holes of golf," he said. "When the rebuild of Quail is complete, we will close the Van Berg Golf Course."

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Bulkley supported his opinion by pointing out it was the same conclusion consultants came to in the early 1990s when the city commissioned a study on the building of Quail Run and the golfing community in Columbus.

"And the dynamics that went into that recommendation are stronger today than they were then," Bulkley's statement said.

Schilling and several golfers at the meetings disagreed with that perspective. Many felt Van Berg was a course needed for junior golfers and those learning the game.

Plus, since the land for the course was donated to the city by Marion Van Berg, certain conditions must be kept for Columbus to hold ownership of the land. It must be maintained as a park or a golf course, and any changes otherwise must be voter-approved.

Then-Columbus' city attorney, Neal Valorz, disagreed with those points two years ago when he indicated during a council meeting that state law may trump several contractual obligations currently in place.

But fighting to maintain golf as it is now in Columbus means having one voice to present to the park board and the city council, Schilling said. And thus, the formation of a golf association.

Schilling is already a member of the Columbus Baseball Association that looks after the game in Columbus in terms of maintaining fields and offsetting the costs for the city and for youngsters whose families may not be able to afford cleats, bats, balls, gloves and other equipment necessary to get involved.

Improvements have been made to the baseball diamond at Pawnee Park, and the field, among others in the community, is maintained each year thanks to the work of the CBA. Schilling believes a similar golf organization is needed to help preserve golf in Columbus as is.

Names were taken at both meetings for those interested in forming an inaugural golf board.

From among more than 40 who signed up, a committee will be chosen that will meet to determine the association's first board of governors.

"Every day I get questions. I've been getting questions for three months about, 'What's going on? What are we doing back there?' And there are just no answers," Quail Run Golf Pro Brent McGrew said. "It was nice for the councilman to come here and answer some questions best he could."

One of those was the delay in activity. Although much of the debris has been collected on the southern portion of the course, that debris remains mostly piled up waiting to be removed.

According to Schilling, that's due to FEMA advising the city not to begin any work on the damage before the agency determines what role it will play in clean up and/or repair and rebuilding.

It's not unlike the situation many private residents across Nebraska found themselves in after the flooding.

"We had to wait on FEMA to come in and say yes or no," Schilling said. "I’ve got some friends out there that are farmers that have holes out in their field who cannot fill the holes because FEMA has to come out and say yes or no."

Because of the delay, it's unlikely the course can be seeded this fall in time for spring growth. That means Quail is likely to remain a nine-hole course in 2020 and perhaps even in 2021 if the golf community doesn't do more to get involved and push the issue, Schilling said.

That's where the association comes in.

Volunteers have been available to begin clean up, but the city has turned down those offers due to the liability it would be exposed to in the case of injury.

But with an association that's purchased its own insurance policy, the city may be more likely to allow volunteers from the association to step in and do clean up, offsetting some of the cost to the city.

Overall though, Schilling said he worries about an uncertain future.

"I don’t know whether we have anything in writing (from FEMA). (The city) hasn't indicated that. They told us verbally that FEMA would do 75 percent," Schilling said. "My thinking is when you look at all the tragedy and all the storms that have gone on in the United States, and we’re depending on FEMA, I don’t know how deep that money hole is.

"My thinking and my feeling is, 'what if? What if this doesn’t work? What are we going to do?' Having an association would allow golfers to have a more active role in preserving it the way it is."

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@columbustelegram.com.

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