CLEVELAND — Two Cleveland City Council committees approved legislation on Monday that would hand over management of the historic, city-owned Highland Park Golf Course located in suburban Highland Hills. Under the legislation, a newly-created non-profit of local business leaders, frequent Highland golfers and golf-industry experts would assume management of the nearly century-old course. Troon, an Arizona-based company that manages 140 municipal courses across the country, would handle day-to-day operations at Highland.
The Council’s Municipal Services and Properties Committee as well as the Finance, Diversity and Inclusion Committee approved the legislation on Monday. As part of the agreement, the city would contribute $250,000 annually to the non-profit Highland Park Golf Foundation. The foundation, in turn, would pay Troon $66,000 annually to handle the daily operations of the course. Additionally, the city would contribute up to $1.5 million over the first five years of the contract to help fund capital improvements at the course, including the construction of a revenue-generating driving range later this year. If and when the golf course turns a profit, the excess revenues would first go to reimburse the city’s $250,000 annual outlay.
The $1.5 million in “seed money” is right in line with the amount paid by the city in recent years to help offset financial losses at the course. In each of the past five years, the city’s general fund has had to cover financial shortfalls at the course, prompting a long simmering debate over whether the city should cede control of the course. In 2022, the course required $1.3 million to operate while only drawing in $700,000 in revenue. The city’s general fund had to cover the estimated $600,000 loss, according to city financial statements.
Some city council members initially balked at the length of the original ground lease agreement which spanned 30 years. However, the agreement was amended to 20 years with two, five-year options. The contract also gives the city additional leverage to terminate the agreement if the foundation and Troon Golf fail to meet certain criteria.
The Bibb Administration deemed the Highland Park Golf Foundation and its partnership with Troon Golf to be the best, most qualified proposal to come from the city’s recent request for proposals. Although Cleveland Metroparks issued a letter of interest, it did not submit a formal proposal.
Some council members, including Councilman Mike Polensek, expressed skepticism about the agreement.
“I don’t want to see people hurt. I don’t want to get [Council] in a situation again where we are going to have to figure out how to clean up something. We’ve had to do too many clean-up acts around here with this Council,” Polensek said. “I’m telling you: I’ve been here longer than anybody. That golf course, you’re going to hear the sucking sound of money.”
Bonnie Teeuwen, the city’s chief operating officer, expressed confidence in the arrangement and its potential to ultimately end the continued cycle of annual losses at the golf course and, potentially, begin turning a profit.
“We are all very competitive and we’d like to make sure that you guys are proud of the results that happen at Highland Golf Course. Any naysayers, we’d like to prove them wrong,” Teeuwen said.
Opened in 1928, the city-owned golf course has a deep, rich history — and not just in the game of golf. The course welcomed minority golfers before most courses did. Highland was also considered to be the home course of Charlie Sifford, who is known as the “Jackie Robinson of Golf.” In 1987, the course hosted the PGA Minority Golf Championship.
Some of golf’s most storied names, including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, played at Highland in the mid-1960s as part of the PGA Tour’s Cleveland Open.
The course’s storied history isn’t lost on those that play it today.
“This course is pretty special to me. It’s a historic course. My grandfather played here when he lived in the area. He played with a lot of the old Cleveland Browns players,” said golfer Nate Livingston. “Jim Brown used to come to this course and play golf. It has significant value for the city of Cleveland and it’s where I learned to play, too.”
Livingston’s golfing buddy, Sam Bistritz, said the course has tremendous opportunity for growth, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many people to play golf for the first time.
“This was our home course growing up in high school. This course, especially the location, has a really good opportunity to bring in a lot of money for the city,” Bistritz said. “I think if you put some more money in and invest in it, this has a very good opportunity to grow and become one of the top public courses in our area. Growing the game is really important.”
Former Highland superintendent Tommie “Moon” Conley, who worked at the course for 30 years, said the course has suffered under city management in recent years, citing the seldom-used clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant. He is optimistic that new management can inject new life into the golf course.
“It’s a money maker if you run it like a golf course. When you have people that run it like anything else, it’s going to fail,” Conley said. “They need to put somebody in there that knows how to run a business. They need a PGA professional in here. They need to revitalize this area here as a driving range.”
The construction of a new driving range is listed under the potential capital improvements coming to the course in 2023 under the new management agreement. Other improvements include a renovated clubhouse, chipping and putting center, as well as improvements to the course as well, including renovated tee boxes.