by Frank Diez
Clarence Plogger loves golfing at Vista Links in Buena Vista. He drives the six miles from his home in Lexington because likes the layout of the course, and he enjoys knowing the usual fees of $27 to $35 are about $10 lower than the Rockbridge area’s other course, Lexington Golf and Country Club.
But Plogger also knows that both Vista Links and the city that owns it are in a lot of trouble.
“Buena Vista opened the course in a bad situation,” he said. “It just wasn’t conceived right.”
The course opened in August 2004, with city officials hoping it would help move the city away from its heavy reliance on industry, bring commercial and residential development and attract tourists.
Instead, in 11 years it has become a major setback for growth and opportunity. The city faces debt payments for the course of more than $660,000 a year, while the course takes in only about $450,000. The city has had to cut more than 20 jobs, partly because of the golf course’s burden. The shortfall prompted City Council late last year to decide to default on the loan. It was the second default in five years.
City Manager Jay Scudder, who arrived in 2011, says planners chose a bad location for the course.
“We tried to improve on real estate there,” says Scudder. “That land is just not fit for development.”
Rick Jacobson, of Jacobson Golf Course Design in Illinois, was hired by the city to design the course.
“We started out with this comprehensive master plan,” for the site the city chose, Jacobson said. “We wanted to exploit the dramatic changes in the site and its topography.”
The result is an 18-hole par 72 with five sets of tees. The overall length of the course ranges from 4,941 yards on forward tees to 6,925 yards from championship tees. Golfers praise the course itself.
But the city and the course have fallen victim to a nationwide trend that a good design can’t overcome.
“The great recession that happened a few years ago made more challenges for courses everywhere,” says Jacobson. “For the ninth year in a row, there have been more golf [course] closings than openings.” According to ESPN, the number of courses in the United States peaked at a little more than 16,000, but has dropped to fewer than 15,400.
In the wake of the city’s second vote to default on its loan, Scudder says he is trying to renegotiate a deal with the company that insured the bonds.
According to a fact sheet on the city’s website, the city has made about $4.4 million in payments, but owes another $15 million.
“We just can’t make the payments on the course anymore,” Scudder said. “It’s just impossible to do.”
The loan’s insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., holds the deeds for both the city’s Municipal Building and Police Department as collateral. The company issued a statement after City Council approved the second default in December 2014.
“I’m disappointed that the City Council decided to act precipitously rather than first enter into good faith discussions with ACA,” the statement quoted company official Maria Cheng. “We worked in good faith with the city several years ago to accommodate the city’s needs, and the city was making progress in following the terms of that deal until this abrupt policy change.”
Scudder knows that golfers like the course, but that isn’t enough. He hopes to make a deal with ACA soon that will allow the city to buy back the deeds to the municipal building and police department.
Scudder isn’t certain about what would happen with the course itself, but options include keeping it open, closing it or selling the course to a third party.
“We hope everything will work out,” he said. “We hope to come to a settlement by the end of June.”
Plogger is hoping that a foreclosure won’t shut down the course.
“I’ve been playing at Vista Links since it first opened,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see it go.”