Ed Barragar is one golfer who’s not the least bit sorry to bid farewell to the “Veterans Memorial Flower.”
That was his term for the dandelions he saw infesting the municipal golf course during a rough patch of maintenance and weeds that may be seeing their last days on the greens as the city of Walla Walla takes back operation of the 18-hole course.
After nearly 18 years in partnership with golf course operator We-Man Vets Golf Inc. and past months punctuated by delinquent rent, utility and other payments, the city has resumed control of the course, officials said.
A settlement agreement between the two sides was reached Friday, said city attorney Tim Donaldson.
Over the weekend a small army of Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department employees and students from Walla Walla Community College took to the course for two days of nonstop mowing, weeding and other work.
Barragar said he was awestruck watching the improvements take place.
“The golf course was in absolute terrible shambles,” he said. “By Sunday it just seemed like a whole new golf course. I can’t say enough.”
City officials had intended to take over the operation earlier this year after problems arose with payments from We-Man. The city estimated in March it was owed a little more than $80,000 in delinquent rent, plus utilities and miscellaneous charges.
The city had issued notice that it planned to terminate the lease by Feb. 21 if payments for two quarters had not been made. But just before closure that day, We-Man president and golf pro Nick Manolopoulos filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The filing essentially halted the termination at the time. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Manolopoulos said the filing was necessary to secure more time to work out an agreement with the city. He said he leaves happy with terms of the settlement, under which both sides released each other from all financial claims and demands that have arisen from the lease.
“I’ve had a good time in Walla Walla and enjoyed it there,” Manolopoulos said. “I think it was time for both parties to move on.”
He added that overall he is proud of what’s been accomplished at Vets, including driving range and clubhouse improvements, a partnership with the city on a new irrigation system and an operation that was affordable for golfers, yet didn’t require additional public subsidies to keep it running.
As part of the settlement, Manolopoulos’s bankruptcy case has also been dismissed. He has 30 days — until June 3 — to remove goods, wares, merchandise and equipment.
For its part the city will honor all season passes and commitments made with schools and other programs by We-Man.
The city has hired Walla Walla Community College golf management instructor Mike Rostollan and the school’s turf management program head Bill Griffith to run the operation through the end of this year. The partnership will allow them to employ about 15 community college students learning the golf business, Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont said.
That setup will be temporary. A new operator is expected to start in 2014. Dumont said the proposed contract will be presented to the Walla Walla City Council in June for consideration to approve the one duo that responded to a request for proposals to run the course.
In the meantime, the new transition will cost the city some upfront investment that wasn’t budgeted. Dumont said the city has ordered 20 power carts to rent for the remainder of the year. That’s the least of the costs, he said. The city will also pay for labor to run the operation, plus maintenance.
“Another way to look at it is the city has a significant asset here,” Dumont said. “The first thing we have to do is protect our asset. If we lose everything it goes to pot.”
Cleanup over the weekend was a huge part of that, he said. “We mowed every piece of grass — most of it twice in those two days and got this course back into playing condition, better than it has been in years according to a lot of players.”
Barragar, who plays often with a group of golfers dubbed the “Gangsome,” said that over the last year or two course conditions led to an increase in everyone’s handicap. “If you got off the tighter mode fairway you were in the rough,” he said. “You couldn’t advance the ball very far.”
As the city tries to build traffic at the course, green fees will be discounted for the next couple of weeks. A round of 18-hole golf will be $20; and nine holes will cost $10, he said. The prices reflect that the course is not yet full-service, meaning there are no power carts. When those come in, the price will return back to $30 for 18 holes and $17.50 for nine.
“We’ll just continue to make it better and hopefully turn over an invigorated golf course to new operators in 2014,” Dumont said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.