By Bill Rauch
I’m not a golfer. But last Thursday, working on this story, I visited the four “public” golf courses in the Beaufort area: The Lady’s Island Country Club, The Sanctuary at Cat Island, The Golf Club at Pleasant Point, and Legends at Parris Island.
Thursday, November 12th, was the first sunny day after what seemed like two weeks of rainy gloom. It was a day for golfers to get back out on their favorite links.
Here’s what I saw. Participation at the three privately-owned golf courses: Cat, Pleasant Point and the Lady’s Island Country Club was lackluster. Yes, there were some golfers out, but there were also lines of unused golf carts in front of the pro shops.
Not so at Parris Island. At Legends there were golfers everywhere. The parking lot was full, and so were the restaurant and pro shop. Legends had it going on.
My one day observation is substantiated by the facts: Parris Island is doing about 40,000 rounds a year. That number is about equal to what the other three courses are doing together.
So why is Legends killing it? Like most stories where dollars are changing hands at various levels, the answer includes arrogance, greed and, yes of course, public policy.
Here’s the story. In 2000 Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) took over operations at the Marine Corps’ golf courses, restaurants, bowling alleys, theaters and the other non-core mission facilities. In 2000 what the Marines did was to civilianize their Morale, Welfare and Recreation function, and MCCS was the entity they stood up to take it civilian. The agency, a “Category C revenue-generating MWR program,” reports to the Commandant.
As a government agency MCCS doesn’t pay sales, property or gas taxes. The money they make they put back into the various enterprises they manage which of course saves taxpayer dollars and further serves the military community. A government-backed business, neither does MCCS incur the costs of either purchasing or leasing the facilities they operate.
Anticipating that MCCS would open the government facilities up to the non-military general public, and to assure that the government’s operations didn’t unfairly compete with local private sector businesses like restaurants, banquet facilities, golf courses, bowling alleys, pro shops and other retailers, in 2000 the Marines designated our Chamber of Commerce as the “community leader” that would determine whether MCCS was unfairly competing with Beaufort’s local businesses. By this 2000 agreement it became primarily the Chamber’s responsibility to advise MCCS and its commanders on how to keep the playing field level, although the views of local elected officials, the agreement indicates, are to be considered as well.
Earlier this year, responding to complaints from Chamber members that their businesses were being squeezed by MCCS’s aggressive marketing and price-cutting, the Chamber quietly took up the issue. Alleged inequities included that it costs $2500 to rent the upstairs of the Old Bay Marketplace that can accommodate a wedding reception of up to 300 people. But the Lyceum at Parris Island that can also accommodate 300 party-goers advertises on its “Weddings” website that it is available for $1000.
Or, the pro shop at Legends will sell you a Callaway Big Bertha driver for less than you can get it at Wal-Mart or Dick’s Sporting Goods, especially when you consider that Legends won’t charge you 6% SC State sales tax.
And of course there are the greens fees. When considering them it is important to know also that the Marines invested about $5.5 million into Legends in 2000, making it clearly the nicest of the local courses that are open to the public. Since that time the privately-owned courses have faced bankruptcies, restructurings, shutterings, changes of ownership and other issues. The Lady’s Island Country Club, for example, currently has 18 of its 36 holes closed.
When the Chamber took their look earlier this year they declined to intercede. In this military town that – justifiably and commendably — so treasures and protects its military bases, it is virtually impossible to find a civic leader who might rein in MCCS.
All this would probably have stayed under the radar screen except that the Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, banker William T. Achurch, recently resigned from the Chamber Board over this issue. In his resignation letter Achurch noted that of the five military golf courses in South Carolina, Legends is the only one that is open to the public; that MCCS’ leadership refuses to meet with the golf club owners to seek to agree on the issue of parity of fees and that the Chamber won’t compel them to do so; and that private enterprises should not be put into the position of competing head-to-head against unfettered government-backed businesses.
Chairman Achurch is gone and at the moment it appears the Chamber is standing firm in its no intercession stance. However, according to Capt. Clayton Groover, Public Affairs at MCAS Beaufort, MCCS now says it will meet with the golf club owners if price parity is not the only issue on the table.
William T. Achurch declined to be interviewed for this article, and representatives of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce didn’t return phone calls.