PORT TOWNSEND — Gabriel Tonan practically grew up at the Port Townsend Golf Club. He played the course as a youth and for all four years of his Port Townsend High School career.
Tonan, now the high school golf coach, has managed the nine-hole course at the club since 2014, when he purchased the rest of the existing lease with the city of Port Townsend from Mike Early, a longtime mentor who has since become a family member.
Early is the uncle of Tonan’s wife, Denise.
The lease, which originated with Early in February 1987 and has been renewed or extended twice, is due to expire Dec. 31, 2020, and the city is examining how it can help it break even.
The Port Townsend City Council last Thursday asked its budget and finance committee to review the viability of running the club after a city-commissioned study from the National Golf Foundation (NGF) returned a 54-page document that analyzed a number of factors.
The study recommended investing $1.2 million to fix an aging irrigation system and to catch up on deferred maintenance, including repair to the clubhouse and pro shop as well as upgrading cart paths and removing certain trees, stumps and rock outcroppings.
“They felt there is a business case that can be made that the golf course can operate on a break-even basis if it migrates over to a city-operated facility,” City Manager David Timmons told council members Thursday as he summarized the report.
That would come after a proposed five-year period during which the city would potentially subsidize the course at $500,000 per year — less if the course performs well — and to market the course regionally to bring in additional rounds through tourism.
But Timmons said it’s likely a scenario of making the capital investments or subsidizing through a third party, not both.
“They [NGF] could not put together a business case where the two could pay for themselves,” Timmons said of those options.
Tonan has worked with his stepson, Zack Glover, and a host of volunteers for the past five years. He’s been at the course for longer, having played it as early as 1988.
Glover runs the mower in the fairways, rough and greens, and many others bring weed trimmers for other areas of the course.
Often, their volunteer time is rewarded with free rounds, according to the NGF report.
At the time he purchased the lease, Tonan also bought Early’s equipment used to maintain the course. But the NGF report stated that agreement has cost “upwards of $20,000 per year, an amount that is 20 percent to 25 percent of total operating expenses in the facility that is being removed from the operation to pay a former lessee.”
The NGF also said it was only able to summarize course revenues and expenditures because more detailed line items were not provided. City Council members said last Thursday they would need more information so they can analyze the operation.
Tonan pays 8 percent of the 9-hole and 18-hole daily fees to the city in accordance with the lease and 5 percent of other sales, including the driving range and cart rentals, according to the report.
Annual payments the city has collected have declined steadily each year since 2008, with nearly $20,000 collected that year down to about $10,000 in 2017, the report stated.
Meanwhile, the city has been responsible for maintenance and repair, including the main line, all service lines and control boxes for the irrigation system, according to the report.
Timmons said the city has been attempting to drill a well near the course for the past 15 years, but it may not be enough for irrigation and it may include saltwater.
Tonan believes the problem in the 32-year-old irrigation system is electrical. Five years ago, he said there were only one or two sprinkler heads that didn’t work. Now the problem is more widespread.
In the summer time, Tonan said the city can ask him not to use water in drought conditions, which can leave fairways brown with hard playing conditions.
“It becomes a bounce-and-roll golf course,” he said.
The aging population also is a factor. Tonan said he used to have about a dozen volunteers, but some are no longer able to help or have passed away.
Several people spoke during the public comment period at the special council meeting last Thursday, urging the city to consider the golf course an asset and treat it as it would a city park.
Some suggested the city is looking to use the space for other purposes, but Timmons disagreed.
“This study was about how do we maintain it, not how do we get rid of it,” he said.
If the city were to take over operations, it would need to work it into the budget or take it from somewhere else, Timmons said.
The city also could continue to use a third-party vendor, like Tonan, to run the operations. Or it could choose to lease out other services, such as food and beverage or the pro shop.
A restaurant opened at the facility in April, Tonan said.
Other options for supplemental funding from the city include forming a parks and recreation district or a facilities district, but those questions would have to be approved by voters and would include a separate property tax, Timmons said.
“The first priority is to determine a way for the city to run a golf course. That’s what’s recommended in this report,” Council member Bob Gray said. “If we can’t figure that out, we need either the current lessee or someone else to run the golf course.”
If the city chooses to ask for proposals from outside vendors, Tonan said he’s prepared to do so.
“That’ll be a new experience for me,” he said.
Tonan fell in love with the game when he and his brother found an old set of clubs in his grandmother’s garage in Ocean Shores. He said he went across the street and played for hours each day, honing his swing in the sandy conditions.
Now, he gets on the course to play a couple of times per week. Occasionally, he’ll play at the club when all his work is done. In the summer, he can tee off at 7:30 p.m. and play until dark, and he’ll manually turn on sprinkler heads along the way.
“This place has definitely had a special place in my heart,” Tonan said.
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].