BERKELEY – After years of losing money, the governing body has decided to privatize the Cedar Creek Golf Course.
Atlantic Golf Management is set to take the reins this spring. The management company and township officials said that the golfer experience will be the same or better. It will just cost the township less to run it.
The golf course has been in a hole for a number of years. According to township figures, it has lost six figures a year for the last decade. This amounts to $2,473,000 in losses since 2007. Prior to that, it did make money. Additionally, township officials were looking back on $2,387,000 in capital investments dating back to 1999.
“The taxpayers of Berkeley Township have subsidized the golf operations nearly $2.5 million over the last 10 years in addition to providing nearly $2.4 million of additional funding for capital improvements. Capital improvements are both equipment and course improvements,” Mayor Carmen Amato said. “That is a cost of nearly $5 million of taxpayers’ funds. It is unacceptable.”
A few residents spoke out about the privatization at the most recent Township Council meeting. They said they were surprised by the move.
Ron Griego, a resident of Holiday Heights, said that Cedar Creek is like “Little Orphan Annie,” in that the town would rather hand it off to someone else than take care of it. He was hoping that the township could get some outside funding to get snack stands or walkways or some other kind of improvements.
Griego suggested getting Green Acres funding for the golf course, but business administrator John Camera said that Green Acres funding can’t be used to pay employees.
Township planner James Oris said that even if Green Acres funding could be obtained for an improvement to the course, Green Acres doesn’t pay to maintain that improvement.
Michael Wujciak, a South Seaside Park resident, said he’s a member of a number of golf clubs. Cedar Creek was a nice, inexpensive place to teach the kids how to play. As a result, one of his kids achieved a scholarship for the sport and the other made a career in the industry.
“That back 9 I’ll hold against any back 9 in any county,” he said. “You have a resource you’ve failed to develop.”
He questioned why the vote to privatize was not made public.
The Township Clerk said that the bids for the management company was made public. A February article in The Berkeley Times mentioned that the township was looking into the possibility of doing this.
The vote itself was added on with a few other motions at the end of the meeting. It was not on the agenda.
“When you’re in a hole, you stop digging,” Council President James Byrnes said in response to a criticism from a resident. “Do you think it’s right for the rest of the taxpayers to foot the bill?”
“The employees are all our friends and relatives. We don’t want to do this but it’s for the best,” he said.
Camera said that no one is talking about shutting it down or making big changes. The management company is expected to make the golfer experience the same or better, while cutting down the cost to the taxpayers.
The management company would likely pay less in salaries than the township is required to pay due to employee contracts and unions. They would be able to spend more money investing into the course instead, he said.
“It’s been a long, tough decision,” Camera said about privatizing.
Any change in the golf rates would have to be approved by the council, Byrnes said. Additionally, if the governing body doesn’t like what the management company is doing, they can “throw them out.”
This contract is separate from, and won’t affect, the one regarding the vendor who runs the restaurant, he said.
There are currently nine full time employees. Years ago, The Berkeley Times wrote an article about the golf course that showed it had 13 full time employees. The number went down through attrition, chief financial officer Fred Ebenau said.
Since those employees were going to be offered other positions, residents questioned what savings the town would really see.
The current employees will be interviewed by the new management company, Amato said. Those who have non-compatible titles will be able to apply for township vacancies. There are a few town positions that are open due to retirements or resignations that the town purposely didn’t fill for this reason. Some union employees with the same titles will have bumping rights for positions.
Anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories will have to be laid off.
“We do regret this, as it was a difficult decision because we do value all our employees, however this was ultimately a business decision that needed to be made on behalf of all the taxpayers in the township,” Amato said.
Departing golf course superintendent Richard Saloom said he wished the town had taken their advice about not cutting some rates, causing even less money to come in. Veterans, for example, make up a large percentage of the golfers, and when they received discounts, it hurt revenue.
“They’re not a bad company, but they’re a company who’s in the business to make money,” he said about the new management. The current employees have deep roots in the community, and they are more likely to go above and beyond for the love of the community than an outside company.
Discounts were offered to seniors, county residents, and veterans. Amato said the money lost was negligible.
Amato said he trusts in Atlantic’s experience, and anticipates that the course will become profitable under their care. The new managers will honor all gift certificates, previously booked golf outings, all current league play and the current rate structure. The management company can send a crew over for a day and get a lot more work done, since they have more resources.
Harry Leonard, the CEO of Atlantic Golf Management, promised quicker greens, and better bunkers and drainage. They hope to spend time and money improving the bunkers and the cart paths.
The rates will stay the same during the first year. “We don’t want to go in there and raise rates without proving ourselves,” he said. If there is an increase in the future, it would only be after the company invested money in the course, so that the company can recoup some of that investment.
In Atlantic’s proposal to the town, the company touted its management of Spring Meadow Golf Course in Farmingdale, where, under Leonard’s leadership, it grew in gross revenues from $750,000 to $1.2 million.
Atlantic’s proposal also stated that John Boyer would be the superintendent of the course. Boyer had been superintendent at Marriott Seaview in Galloway for 22 years. After that, he worked for a couple of companies, one of which was acquired by Atlantic in 2015. He spent 16 years at Westlake Country Club in Jackson, and also worked on Running Deer Golf Club in Centerton and Greenbriar Oceanaire in Waretown.
Atlantic used to manage five different courses, but just handles Spring Meadow and Cedar Creek now, Leonard said.
Advice On Golf
The township receives input from several sources about the golf course. There are three council members who are on a golf committee. Currently, they are James Byrnes, John Bacchione, and Angelo Guadagno.
There is also a residential golf committee that advises the governing body. This is an all-volunteer group, and their committee doesn’t have a budget.
The management company is anxious to get input from them, Amato said.
There is also a resident, Cheryl Altieri, who works in an advisory position for the town. The position is listed as “golf ranger,” and earns $25 an hour. After taxes, she earned $11,725 in 2017, according to township records. There are no benefits associated with this position.
Altieri, who owns a chiropractic center in town, was brought in to help market the golf course, he said.
“We did the best we could,” he said of the attempts to bring in more golfers over the past few years with marketing and rate changes, but it ultimately wasn’t enough. There was a push toward getting youth involved in the game, making it easier to navigate for seniors, and allowing twilight play for a second shift of players, for example.
“We did see a small increase in the rounds of golf, but not nearly enough to make an impact on the deficit,” he said.
What do you think? Should the golf course be privatized? You can send your letter to the editor at [email protected]