First Tee of Fort Smith closing Dec. 1; hopeful for re-start with county help

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 644 views 

The First Tee of Fort Smith is closing its doors.

The organization posted on its Facebook page around noon Wednesday (Nov. 28) that it would close effective Dec. 1.

The First Tee of Fort Smith operates from the Jack Stephens Youth Golf Academy, adjacent to Ben Geren Regional Park in Fort Smith, introducing children to the sport of golf while teaching them core values and healthy habits.

“Unfortunately the expenses outweighed the revenue that was coming in and The First Tee of Fort Smith could no longer survive. Over the past 20 years, we have had so many great young people come through our facility that have had opportunities that have changed their lives. We hope that the young people that have learned from our program will continue to live out the life skills and core values that were taught by our outstanding volunteers and coaches,” the post said.

Alan McFerran, chairman of the board for the organization, said they have hopes of being able to operate again in the future, but at the moment, there are not funds to operate the program.

“We don’t have any money. It’s as easy as that,” McFerran said.

The board talked with Sebastian County Judge David Hudson Wednesday afternoon in hopes that the county could help the organization with maintenance costs for the golf course.

“We walked out in the same financial situation we were in, but we think we are at a starting point to see a relationship form (between First Tee and Sebastian County),” McFerran said, noting that though the board was hopeful, any plans for a partnership would have to go before the Sebastian County Quorum Court.

“I think they can see now the urgency. If there is going to be a partnership, it needs to happen now,” he added.

Hudson said that the county has a long relationship with The First Tee of Fort Smith dating back to when it began and the county was instrumental in transitioning the land where the program’s facility is located from a private individual to the program.

“We go back 18 years,” Hudson said. “This program has been nationally recognized for developing a great program, and we don’t want to see that facility not providing services to the youth of this area. I think people can see what a really great program this is.”

The First Tee of Fort Smith is available to children ages 3 to 17. Members pay an annual membership fee of $75 with additional children in a family paying $60 each. Scholarships are available.

“The participants’ fees do not fund what is needed to keep the program a success,” said Chris Murphy, executive director.

The facility includes a 9-hole executive golf course, including a 6-hole course and a 3-hole short course, a practice area with driving range, chipping green and putting green, and the Bagby Learning Center, which houses offices, lounges, a library and classroom areas, Murphy said.

“We have seen a decline in donations to the organization along with a steady increase in participants,” Murphy said.

Currently, there are 389 participants in the program, but this does not adequately measure the number of children the program has reached, Murphy said.

The Tee Up in Gym Class program, which according to The First Tee of Fort Smith website is offered in all 19 Fort Smith Public Schools elementary schools as well as Union Christian Academy and Parkview Elementary in Van Buren, has reached approximately 12,000 students a year for the past 10 plus years, Murphy said.

The program has physical education teachers trained to teach The First Tee curriculum through activity-based lessons. Each student learns “a golf lesson along with learning The First Tee Nine Core Values and Nine Healthy Habits,” the website states.

“First Tee is just a great resource to our children in helping them become better citizens. It teaches them confidence, integrity and respect. It teaches them how to prepare for their future through setting goals and by living a healthy lifestyle,” Murphy said.

The First Tee has four full-time employees and some part-time coaches. Those positions will not exist after Nov. 30, McFerran said.

“There’s no money to be paid out unless something changes, but we are still working diligently to make something happen,” he said.

Hudson said the goal now is to evaluate how the program can continue.

“Hopefully, there will be some donations that can help at this low moment, so there can be some long-term planning as to how it can continue,” Hudson said. “I think there is a lot of support in the Fort Smith region for this program. Hopefully, something can be done, and then First Tee and the county can look at options to stabilize it and keep it moving into the future.”

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