City mulls $2.6M golf course overhaul; Upgrades planned to pull Tony Butler from $400K hole

HARLINGEN — After about three years of debate, city leaders are planning as much as a $2.6 million overhaul of the Tony Butler Golf Course, counting on upgrades to pull the 92-year-old icon out of the hole after running about eight years in the red.

During a joint meeting Wednesday, commissioners and members of the Harlingen Community Improvement Board agreed to publish a notice of intent aimed at setting aside an unspecified amount of money to fund the project.

Toward the end of the 60-day comment period, officials will hold a public hearing into their proposal.

During Wednesday’s meeting, City Secretary Amanda Elizondo read 20 public comments calling for golf course upgrades.

“This is a jewel of Harlingen,” John Guevara, a member of the community improvement board, said of the 206-acre golf course opened in 1929.

Amid an hour of discussion, City Manager Dan Serna proposed officials dip into the improvement board’s budget funded through a one-eighth-cent sales tax aimed at financing quality-of-life projects to fund the $2.6 million upgrade.

“I strongly recommend” the project, Serna told board members.

Meanwhile, board members questioned whether their $5.3 million budget could fund the proposed project after last month’s commitment of $3.7 million aimed at the Lon C. Hill destination park’s second phase.

In response, Serna said the city’s sales tax projections show the board’s fund balance is expected to increase by about $4.4 million by August 2023, when officials expect to complete the super park’s second phase.

The proposed $2.6 million golf course upgrade “is a management expense for this source of funding,” Mayor Chris Boswell said, adding the city’s growth is expected to help double its sales tax collection within 10 years.

Proposed upgrades

As part of his proposal, Serna recommended a $1.6 million overhaul of the golf course’s irrigation system.

“Our irrigation is antiquated at best,” he said.

Meanwhile, Serna called for $500,000 aimed at pushing up the golf course’s greens and $230,000 to upgrade drainage in low-lying areas.

Officials are counting on upgrades to draw more players to the golf course lugging a $400,000 deficit.

Since 2011, the golf course’s rounds of play have plunged from 59,132 to 16,418, Serna’s PowerPoint presentation showed.

Scaling back

Last year, city commissioners agreed to scale back the 27-hole golf course to 18 holes to help cut maintenance costs.

As part of their plan, officials agreed to sell a 30-acre tract running across holes 19 to 23 of the so-called nine-hole short course — a favorite among many Winter Texan players — to help fund improvements.

But the land didn’t sell.

In 2019, officials paid $22,000 to hire the National Golf Foundation, a national golf consulting firm, to recommend upgrades aimed pulling the golf course out of the hole.

In a 97-page report, the consultants’ recommendations included selling the nine-hole short course to turn the 27-hole playing field into an 18-hole course.

In January 2019, area golfers and Winter Texans packed City Hall, urging commissioners against selling the nine-hole short course.

Consultant’s recommendations

In their report, the consultants recommended as much as $3.7 million to $7 million worth of improvements aimed at overhauling much of the golf course.

“We found that course conditions were poor, with partial turf loss on greens, hard, crusty bunkers, drainage problems throughout and an irrigation system that doesn’t keep up with demand in hot summer months to keep the course green,” the report states.

“Based on our evaluation, we believe that Tony Butler Golf Course finds itself in the position of needing to replace nearly all its infrastructure just to survive and remain in business with a functioning golf course.”

Recommendations included rebuilding or replacing “major infrastructure components of the 18-hole course — greens, irrigation system, bunkers, drainage” at a cost of $3.75 million, the report states.

“We recommend, at a minimum, replacing and/or upgrading all major infrastructure components, including greens, irrigation system, bunkers, drainage and tees.”

In-house work

For months, Jeff Hart, the golf course’s new general manager and golf pro, has been working to improve the course.

On the playing field, Hart and his crew are aerating greens while adding fertilizer along with pesticides to kill nematodes — pests that eat up turf.