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Buffalo Valley Golf Course on the fly

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Jan 27, 2018 at 12:32 AM

Unicoi residents and officeholders are working fast to come up with a recommendation they hope will allow Buffalo Valley Golf Course to reopen to golfers.

The city of Johnson City, which closed the course in Unicoi on Jan. 1 citing a decline in play at its two city-owned courses, has put out a request for proposals to buy the 121-acre property, with a Feb. 7 deadline for submission of bids.

The Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen appointed a committee to gather information and make a recommendation to the board at its last meeting on Jan. 15.

The board meeting packed Unicoi’s tiny town hall building with residents of Buffalo Valley area, including many who stood elbow-to-elbow for more than two hours to hear and be heard on the many issues surrounding the sale.

Given less than three weeks to accomplish its tasks, the golf course committee and the subcommittees it has broken into have held numerous meetings and will meet again on Thursday, Feb. 1, to finalize a recommendation for the board.

The mayor and aldermen will meet in special called meeting to consider the committee’s recommendation on Feb. 5, just two days short of Johnson City’s deadline for submission of proposals.

At the board’s Jan. 15 meeting, the mayor and at least two aldermen addressed the town’s lack of expertise and funding to buy and operate the course, but also the willingness to consider a proposal if the course can be leased or managed by a private operator.

Mayor Johnny Lynch said at that meeting, “Ideally, I’d love to see some person come in and keep that golf course running and just move on like we’re doing, but that may not happen.”

Concern for the loss of the course expressed at the board meeting and again at this week’s committee meeting were topped by an anticipated decline in surrounding property values, a resulting decline in Unicoi County land tax revenues, and a possible re-assessment and ultimate land tax increase to keep county services funded at their current level.

Committee member Wayne Lewis told the crowd that filled the Unicoi Visitors Center conference room for Thursday’s committee meeting his review of the values of homes surrounding the golf course and comparable homes elsewhere in the county did not show a large variance. Lewis said he found the difference between a home on the course assessed at $249,000 and a comparable home located elsewhere was about $2,000.

Committee member Glenn Rosenoff, who serves on a subcommittee of Buffalo Valley property owners, said other negative impacts of losing the golf course include a loss of business activity generated by visiting golfers and a decline in county resources for economic development.

Rosenoff on Thursday presented a business plan prepared by the subcommittee with cost reductions and revenue-generating strategies he said could result in an annual operating profit of about $9,300.

Lynch asked Rosenoff and the other members of the subcommittee if they would be willing to form an association to operate the course, and reiterated the town’s willingness to make a proposal is tied to the availability of a private management group outside of town government.

While the city’s request for a proposal does not include a minimum asking price for the course, Lynch said the town’s finances would probably limit its offer to around $500,000, compared to an assessment of $2.7 million.

Asked by Alderman Jeff Linville, who chairs the golf course committee, for a backup plan in the event the golf course business plan fails, Rosenoff cited the course’s real estate value.

Another golf course property owner told Linville that, even at $2.7 million, the course could more than pay for itself on the real estate market. And property owner Steven Williams called the city’s request for proposals a “one-time opportunity” for the town.

While the course was described by one property owner as as “a jewel in the crown of Unicoi County,” Linville said a small wastewater treatment plant located on the course is “the thorn.”

Linville noted the city’s request for bids on the property requires the buyer to operate the wastewater treatment plant and said, like the golf course, the town has no capability to take over its operation.

Linville said while the plant earns the city approximately $11,000 a month in utility fees, he received a list of repairs to the plant he requested from the city. Noting that the cost of an equipment breakdown at the plant could be astronomical, Linville said, “I don’t want their problems.”

Lynch suggested the committee approach the county’s Joint Economic Development Board about the possibility of Erwin Utilities taking over the wastewater plant. And Kent Bradley, owner of Buffalo Valley Apartments, told the committee he has looked at the plant and would be willing to take over its operation.

In the event the town or a private golf organization is unable to purchase and reopen the golf course, Michael Balluff, owner of the Tri-Cities Otters and the Johnson City Indoor Soccer facility next to the course, has proposed an alternative.

Balluff, who has accumulated about $1 million worth of artificial turf outside his indoor soccer facility on Golf Course Road, has proposed the development of an athletic field complex and related amenities on the lower half of the course and a land trust on the upper section of the course that he said he will turn over the neighboring residents to use as they wish.

He said his long range plan also includes buying the hotel that overlooks the lower half of the course to provide overnight accommodations to players and coaches who come to facility for tournaments.

While Balluff’s plan to buy the old hotel won him an enthusiastic round of applause at the Jan. 15 board meeting, several neighboring property owners opposed the athletic fields.

Balluff stressed that his plan for an athletic field complex in contingent on the failure of all options for continuing golf at Buffalo Valley and repeatedly stated he will not build the complex if the neighboring residents do not want it.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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