Optimism voiced at Sierra Meadows meeting

Nearly 70 interested members of the the Sierra Meadows Golf Course met Nov.28, to learn details of the planned Dec. 15 closure of the 18-hole course and clubhouse, and to brainstorm ideas that could keep the facility open until a buyer is found.

The closure, which surprised most of the members and area golfers, was announced in a recent letter to families and individuals who are members of the course, from owner Robert H. Bard, Jr., who has owned the course for 13 years. Bard has the 1,300 acre property listed with Oakhurst real estate broker Brad Ditton for $3.95 million, considerably less than 18 months ago when the asking price was $9.75 million.

The informational meeting was coordinated by Maria and Doug Chapman, Sierra Meadows homeowners, along with Ditton and Mike Best, Sierra Meadows general manager. Maria is the senior research director for a Los Gatos technology association, who felt it was important for club members to come together to be informed of the current status of the property, and to investigate options for an interim solution to keep the course open until a buyer is found.

Sierra Meadows was close to being sold recently to a Bay Area man with business ties to Shanghai, China, who had improvement and expansion plans for the property including a hotel, an equestrian center, and an extensive landscaping project. Although the deal did not materialize, Ditton told the gathering there has been a lot of interest in Sierra Meadows after he sent out 158,000 emails about the property to California real estate brokers and agents.

In his letter to club membership, Bard said since 2008, he has spent in excess of $2.1 million over and above revenue to maintain the golf course.

“From the beginning, the golf course has not made any money in spite of all our continued efforts and substantial investments,” Bard said.

Like other ‘seasonal’ businesses in the Mountain Area, Sierra Meadows, if kept open, would most likely operate in the red over the next three to four months, but would see positive cash flow by spring with more rounds of golf due to longer days and better weather, and much increased wedding business.

An advisory committee was formed to further research possible solutions to present to Bard that could keep the facility open until someone buys the business. In addition to Maria Chapman and Best, volunteer committee members include Joe Ferris, Terry Evans, Bob Riva, Cynthia Vargas, Larry Haugen, Ed Hart, and Walt Reimer.

“The committee’s intent is to submit a proposal that provides viable options to off-set Mr. Bard’s monthly loss, and keep the course functional until the property is sold,” Maria said.

Some of the ideas to raise revenue and reduce costs included having members pay a fee for golf carts, increase membership dues, reduce the number of days each week the course would be open, , reduce labor costs, and cut back on the hours of operation of the cafe and bar. Another idea to save operational costs was for interested members to volunteer some time for maintenance, handywork, and pro shop.

Most people attending the meeting were open to some increased fees over a short time period to help keep the facility open, as well as volunteering to help with operations.

Best explained that memberships account for 15 to 20% of the Sierra Meadows revenue and that memberships have been reduced from 126 in 2004 to the current 68. He said Sierra Meadows needs to increase memberships and the number of rounds of golf to cover the overhead expenses. Currently, about 16,000 rounds of golf are played annually at Sierra Meadows, down from about 20,000 rounds in years past.

“One more foursome a day would create $72,000 a year,” Best said.

Ed Hart, president of the 80-member Sierra Meadows Men’s Club, remained optimistic after being notified of the closure.

“The price is a steal for this size property and all the improvements on it including the golf course, club house, pool, and RV park,” Hart said.

“I was very pleased with the attendance and the input that everyone provided at the meeting,” Maria said. “I am optimistic that we will be able to offer the current owner some viable options and hopefully keep Sierra Meadows open, until purchased.”

Committee member Haugen said he is hopeful that the committee’s work will demonstrate the concern that if the course and facilities close, it would have a significant, lasting impact on not only the local community, but the entire Mountain Area and Madera County.

“The willingness of local members and residents to address the issue should encourage area and county leaders to do the same,” Haugen said.

Reimer said the committee will try to keep the course open for a number of reasons - it’s the only 18-hole course in the area, it’s a big attraction for the area, it provides a tax base for the county, and keeping it open would preserve property values.

Evans, a Sierra Meadows homeowner and committee member, called the situation difficult for all involved, including Bard, home and land owners, players and employees of Sierra Meadows, and the surrounding communities.

“As a business owner I am sympathetic of Mr. Bard’s situation - running a business in the red is not fun, and I do not recall being made any promises regarding the on-going operations of Sierra Meadows.”

Evans said many people have a vested interest in seeing Sierra Meadows operating.

“I feel confident after hearing Brad Ditton’s report, that he will find a buyer,” Evans said.

In his letter to the membership, Bard explained that he and the Sierra Meadows staff developed a wedding business and promoted the RV park rentals to increase income.

“However each year the primary golf income declined more than we could offset with these new revenue sources,” Bard said. “In addition, in 2014, we experienced our first major water shortage resulting from the historically severe California drought. We had insufficient water to maintain the survival of many of the grass areas on the course. It is estimated that it will now require an additional $300,000 to $500,000 to repair the drought damage to the course and to replace much of our aging maintenance equipment and cart fleet.”

Bard stated that the continuing California drought and the unlikely ability of the residential housing market to recover in the foreseeable future, forced him to close the facility.

“The ongoing annual operating loss, and necessary capital expenses give us no choice but to close the Sierra Meadows Golf Course as of Dec. 15,” Bard said..

The popular golf course has been the site of hundreds of fund-raising golf tournaments, weddings, anniversaries, awards banquets, and other special events for 27 years.