The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (May 16) unanimously passed a resolution requesting the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) donate the property that has operated as many years as Deer Trails Golf Course to the city of Fort Smith.
At the May 2 regular meeting, the board asked that a resolution be brought May 16 on the subject after having heard from members of the public that operate or use the Deer Trails Golf Course, which they would like to remain in operation.
“Board members acknowledge the public interest and, if the FCRA donates the property to the City, the City intends to continue its operation as a public golf course,” Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said in a memo on the matter.
The 119-acre golf course, located on Custer Avenue with a boundary at Roberts Boulevard is shown as a community attraction property for sale on the property for sale section of the FCRA website. Daniel Mann, FCRA director and CEO, said May 11 the property is for sale but it is not being actively marketed. Mann receives a 2% commission on all FCRA property sales in addition to his base salary of $124,610.
“In the original lease agreement with Deer Trails, it said the property would be listed for sale,” Mann said.
FCRA first leased the golf course to a non-profit in 2014 for $1 a year for five years. Prior to that FCRA operated the golf course for two years. At the time, the FCRA said it was a necessity to lease the facility and get it off FCRA’s books. The lease agreement removed the monetary liability from FCRA while keeping the amenity on-site and available to residents.
Mann said Deer Trails is now in its second 5-year lease and FCRA and Deer Trails are negotiating for an additional year extension to that lease, which would extend the lease to March 31, 2025. Deer Trails has first right of refusal regarding an accepted offer on the course through March 31, 2024. If the lease is extended, the first-right of refusal would extend to the same date.
Randy Shock, a representative of Deer Trails Golf Course, addressed the board April 25 about the situation with the course, one of only two public courses in the county. Deer Trails has been a golf course operating as a golf course for over 75 years. Deer Trails presented a letter of intent to the FCRA in December that they should deed the course property to Deer Trails. The letter noted that if Deer Trails were not operating a golf course, it would revert back to the FCRA or the city of Fort Smith. They said they would convert to a 501C3 and continue to operate the course at no cost to anyone. Letters of support from City Administrator Carl Gefken, all the Fort Smith directors who were sitting at the time and state legislators as well a petition signed by nearly 2,000 residents were included with the letter of intent.
In April, FCRA responded to the letter saying it was not really an offer.
David Shepherd, a member of the Deer Trails Country Club board, who leases the land as a golf course, said the course continues to operate in the black and at no point has depended on public funds. He also said the course sees around 9,000 players annually and 17,000 visit the restaurant a year.
“That’s 25,000 a year annually who use this facility. There are only two public courses in Fort Smith, Ben Geren and this one,” Shepherd said, noting the course has saved the FCRA board more than $2 million since the Deer Trails Country Club board took over the lease of the course eight years ago.
The course employs nine people. The restaurant employees between seven to 12. Shock said in April that the course continues to run in the black.
Rod Blake with Rod Blake Construction of Fort Smith addressed the board May 9 in support of the course staying a golf course. He said with the approval by the U.S. Air Force of the Foreign Military Sales program coming to the Ebbing Air National Guard Base, houses with golf course amenities will be a great selling point.
“A golf course community on the southeastern side of Fort Smith against the Air National Guard base at Fort Chaffee would be a great thing. It doesn’t need to be a warehouse. … It needs to be a golf course. Houses need to be built around it. Maximize the footprint and make life better in Fort Smith,” Settle said.
The entire golf course is in the city limits of Fort Smith, said Maggie Rice, director of development services. Though the resolution was passed, Mayor George McGill cautioned the board that the FCRA board of directors does not have to act on it.
At its study session May 9, the BOD agreed to ask for a joint meeting between themselves and the FCRA board in the near future to discuss the golf course and what can be done to keep it a golf course.
Director George Catsavis asked Geffken to see if it would be possible to instruct the city attorney to file an injunction to stop FCRA from selling the golf course. At Tuesday night’s meeting, City Attorney Jerry Canfield said the city does not have authority or control over the sale or disposal over the property controlled by the FCRA.
“The city could file a lawsuit, but there is no basis that I’m aware of that the city has the ability to say to the FCRA as to how they dispose of that property,” Canfield said.