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Golf decline spells end for 88-year-old Scovill

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DECATUR — Scovill Golf Course is closing permanently, but the old course will get a victory lap.

The Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to close Scovill for good on Oct. 29. If the course's irrigation pump fails at any point after the course opens on March 1, it will close in seven days with public notice.

“Our golfers have been really good to us for many years,” Decatur Park Board President Bob Brilley II said. “This is a big decision. I don’t think it’s fair to say to them, ‘We’re going to close the golf course and that’s the way it is.’ I think we need to give them some notice, and it’s the same with our staff.”

Scovill’s closing will leave the park district with two golf courses: Hickory Point Golf Course and Red Tail Run Golf Club. The park district had five golf courses as recently as 2004, but there has been a 62 percent decline in rounds since 1990 attributed to a sharp drop in the Decatur population and the number of golfers in Decatur.

Wildwood, a nine-hole course, closed in 2004, and Faries closed in 2005 with the opening of Red Tail Run in 2006. Nelson Park’s course closed in 2009.

Though the park district actually made $44,136 from golf during the 2015-16 fiscal year after cutting staff and expenses, it’s lost an average of $202,563 per year in the last 11 years. Rodney Buhr, park district chief financial officer, said based on his office’s conservative projections, keeping Scovill open as a nine-hole course would have cost the park district between $50,000 and $90,000. Closing it will be a net gain of $60,000 to $100,000.

“We’ve went over the money, but the big problem is we don’t have the golfers,” Brilley said. “And our average golfer is 61 or 62 years old. Every one of our golfers who passes away, there’s no one to replace them. That’s just a fact. We’ve got to have the golfers.

“I don’t want to close Scovill — I grew up at Scovill. I played there. I caddied there. But if you don’t have the people to play the game, something’s got to happen. I think everyone understands that and I think the golfers understand that.

"There’s something sacred about Scovill; the golfers don’t want to let go of it, and I don’t want to let go of it, either. I’m speaking from my heart here, but something’s got to happen if we don’t have the golfers.”

Board member Stacey Young said she hopes closing Scovill will help the district’s overall golf program.

“I want to see golf be sustained in our community,” Young said. “If that means consolidating operations to two courses to sustain it into the foreseeable future, and to make sure our golf community has two nice courses that we can invest in to make sure they’re pristine, then I’m in support of that.”

Scovill, on West Main Street, filled just 37 percent of available tee times in 2016, 12 percent less than Hickory Point Golf Course and 16 percent less than Red Tail Run Golf Club. Kurt Rogers, manager of golf for the district, said if a private company owned all three courses, Scovill would have closed in 2009.

“Red Tail and Hickory have been elevated to a really high level as far as quality and playability,” Rogers said. “When the season pass players have the choice, they’re going to go to Red Tail and Hickory. In 2014, we lowered the fee at Scovill, and it did work, but when push comes to shove, we just don’t have enough people.

“We held on as long as we could with Scovill. We’ve cut staff and expenses as far as we possibly could. We couldn’t hold on any longer.”

A course first opened on the grounds at Scovill in May 1929 and was known as Sunnyside Golf Club. It was renovated and renamed Scovill in 1942 after Guy and Rose Scovill wrote a check to the park district to purchase it. It was renovated again in 1991.

The current irrigation system at Scovill was put in during that 1991 renovation and was described Rogers as obsolete. Rogers said the jockey pump, which brings the water pressure up gradually, is “completely shot. We don’t have that pump.” He said the main pump is operating at about 50 percent and the auxiliary pump is operating at 33 percent. Rogers said there aren’t replacement parts anymore for the current system. A new irrigation system would cost $725,000.

“Even if you wanted to try to repair the current one, you’d have to try to find used parts — (course superintendent) Tom Mooney looked into it and couldn’t even find any,” Rogers said. “And you can’t just do the pump because you still have bad circuitry and bad control boxes.

“It’s on its last leg. I’ve asked Tom if it could go the day we turn it on, and he said it could. So we’re going to wait to turn it on. Usually the irrigation systems come online in April after the last freeze. We may wait until the middle of May at Scovill.”

If Scovill had continued to stay open, Buhr said the golf cart fleet would also need replaced at a cost of $200,000.

Some in the community have questioned the park district’s decision to build a $9.2 million water park at the same time it’s using population decline as a reason to close Scovill. But Bill Clevenger, park district executive director, defended that decision.

“When you look at developing a park system, you look at making it diverse,” Clevenger said. “The primary areas in Decatur are golf, the zoo, the indoor sports center, the neighborhood and community parks, and aquatics.

"When you look at surveys for the most participated in activities, aquatics are at the top of the list. We heard from those millennial moms with young children, and they’re excited about this kind of opportunity to do things with their kids.”

Two members of one of Decatur’s largest golf leagues, The Big Dummies League, were in attendance at the meeting. Jerry Coon and Jim Lewis were disappointed.

“I think there enough resources out there to keep three courses in Decatur,” Coon said. “But I’m pleased they decided to give it some time. That opens the possibilities things could happen like more rounds or golfers who left Decatur to play elsewhere may come back.”

Lewis said he knew the decision was inevitable.

“As a golfer I’m not happy about it, but the reality is our population is decreasing and we don’t have the younger generation playing golf in Decatur,” Lewis said. “You can’t control the population decrease and you can’t force the kids to play.”

Coon said the park district needs to do a better job marketing golf in Decatur.

“They need to go out and reach nongolfers and get them interested, " Coon said. "They need more players in Decatur; that’s evident.”

Scovill was especially popular with Decatur’s women golfers. Jan DeVore plays golf recreationally and competitively in tournaments and the Wednesday morning women’s league at Scovill.

“The women love the course,” DeVore said. “Most of them play well there. They can reach the greens in regulation, and they score pretty well. I think they like it because it’s a little shorter.”

Tournaments and leagues will continue at Scovill in 2017. If the irrigation pump fails, Rogers said those tournaments and leagues will be merged into Red Tail Run and Hickory Point “as best we can on the fly. We’ll try to accommodate all of them if that’s possible.”

What will happen to Scovill is yet to be decided, according to Clevenger. The clubhouse and banquet facility will stay open through the end of 2017 and is still available for bookings.

“I really don’t know what we’ll do right now,” Clevenger said. “This gives us some time look at ways we can productively repurpose the facility. Golf courses have closed all over the country. We’ll do extensive research on what others have done and sift through ideas to see what will be the best use.”

Clevenger said the park district can’t sell the golf course without a referendum, and the caveat set when the Scovills donated the money for the course was that the land had to be used for recreation.

“We’ll have to be cognizant of what we can and can’t do with the property,” Clevenger said. “We’ll look into if there are individuals out there who would like to start some type of recreational venture as a private/public partnership.

“There’s already an asphalt trail system contained on the property that could be used for walking, biking or jogging. It’s a question of what might fit. We won’t know the answers to those questions until we do some exploration and see what the possibilities are.”

The final year will also be the course’s 75th year since becoming known as Scovill. Rogers said there will be special activities planned, and board member Chris Riley suggested commemorative tee box flags that could be sold at the end of the year for mementos, with the proceeds going to the junior golf program.

“I think we should talk to golfers about some different things they’d like to see,” Riley said.

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