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Monday, July 13, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Officials debate Palouse Ridge pros and cons

Pullman High coach Craig McCormick and golfer Erik Johnson Jr., 16, practice putting at the new Washington State course last month. 
 (Rajah Bose / The Spokesman-Review)
Pullman High coach Craig McCormick and golfer Erik Johnson Jr., 16, practice putting at the new Washington State course last month. (Rajah Bose / The Spokesman-Review)

In the years that Washington State University officials talked about, dreamed of and planned for a destination golf course on campus, they intended to pay for it – or at least a lot of it – with private donations.

Now the 18-hole Palouse Ridge Golf Club is nearing its grand opening on Labor Day weekend, and university officials hope it becomes a regional draw for golfers, a championship course for tournaments, a boost for the university and an engine for the local economy.

But fundraising to pay for the course has lagged far behind both the cost of the project and the planners’ goals, WSU records show. Since last July, as the project has headed toward completion and as marketing efforts for the course have ramped up, no new funds have been raised or even pledged, the university says.

WSU has raised or received pledges for about $2.1 million for the $8.4 million course, and that doesn’t include the $4 million clubhouse. To help cover the shortfall, the university has sold millions of dollars in donated property and taken an “interfund” loan of more than $3 million from a fund of real estate investments. Meanwhile, the university’s plans to develop a hotel and convention center – a project often seen as connected to the course – have been put on hold because of the weakening economy.

WSU officials say there’s nothing unusual about taking such steps with privately funded projects, and that they’re still working to raise money – including offering the naming rights for the course for $5 million.

“This is going to be a great boon for Washington State University,” said Mel Taylor, executive director of real estate for WSU. “It’s going to be good for Pullman, for Spokane and for Eastern Washington.”

The university hasn’t used any taxpayer money toward the course, and the project doesn’t directly affect the budget for classrooms or educational programs. But spending millions on the golf course has drawn criticism from those who question how it fits into WSU’s academic mission – particularly now, as the school goes through a process intended to trim the number of courses it offers by 20 percent.

The golf course has also attracted intense criticism over its proposed water use, given the region’s declining aquifer. Opponents haven’t been successful in blocking the project – arguing that golf course irrigation harms other users – but plan to take their fight to court.

One critic, in a letter to college administrators, summed up the tenor of these concerns: “So finally, let’s quit with the fun and games and get on with the business of running a university and its very reason for being. Until you get publications in the library so students and faculty can accomplish their important work, I’ll remain indignant that we continue to even discuss anything so trivial as another 9 holes of aquifer and chemical-sucking golf course.”

WSU has defended its water use, noting that even though it will use an estimated 55 million gallons a year to irrigate the course, depending on the weather, the course is designed for maximum efficiency and the university has reduced its overall water use by 110 million gallons a year in the past two decades, with plans to trim millions more each year.

Officials also say the golf course will be good for WSU’s academic mission by providing a course for the golf teams, an environment for turfgrass research and other scientific projects, and a draw for researchers and faculty members.

Several universities have added golf courses over the past decade, including Purdue, Kansas State and Texas Tech. And while WSU has heard criticisms, it’s also received support from city officials and business leaders.

“The new golf course will also certainly serve as a tremendous tool in our local recruitment of businesses, tourists and retirees,” Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson and City Supervisor John Sherman wrote in a February letter to President Elson Floyd. “It really is reflective of the ‘World Class’ status of WSU.”

Recasting the region

Taylor said there’s been a lot of buzz about the course in golf and sports circles around the region in advance of the formal opening Aug. 29. A Seattle Times story called it the “headline golf-course opening in the state” this year.

The expanded course was designed by John Harbottle III, a prominent course architect who says Palouse Ridge will be among the best collegiate courses in the nation. It covers 315 acres, with a design that incorporates as much natural vegetation as possible, WSU says.

WSU has hired head pro Jeremy Wexler, an alumnus and sixth-generation Pullman native.

A 7,000-square-foot clubhouse, including a pro shop and high-end restaurant, is set to open in August before the grand opening. Once everything’s running, it will cap decades of discussions about turning WSU’s low-key nine-hole course into a championship course. Former President V. Lane Rawlins was a big proponent of the project, and as the plans began to take shape in 2005 he pressed fundraisers to bring in the money.

Rawlins pitched an expansive vision for the course in a video to donors and others made in 2005. “This is about much more than a golf course,” he said, according to a script of the video. “It’s about recasting an entire university and region.”

That was the year the project really took flight, before construction began and the push for fundraising. A review of golf course records obtained under the state’s open records law shows that for months in 2005, officials were pushing to raise millions.

In January 2005, for example, Rawlins and other top administrators set this goal, according to minutes of one meeting: “We currently need $5 million in private support pledges to begin the construction.”

A few months later, a goal of $6 million was suggested. But actual fundraising never kept pace with those ambitions. By the time construction began in spring 2006, about $1.7 million had been raised, and the university had begun selling property that had been donated as “unrestricted gifts” to the university foundation – to be used in any way the university sees fit. This included selling a parcel of land in Honolulu for about $2 million and putting condos in Phoenix and Spokane on the market.

By July 2007, after Rawlins had retired and Floyd was on the job, money raised or pledged topped $2.1 million.

“Indeed, this is a great start, but it is clear that if we are to fulfill our goal to fully fund this course with private support, we must redouble our efforts to secure private gifts,” according to a letter sent by WSU to members of a fundraising committee. “Doing so is a top fundraising priority for Dr. Floyd and the WSU Foundation.”

Almost a year later, the needle hasn’t moved. Brenda Wilson-Hale, CEO of the WSU Foundation overseeing the fundraising efforts, said she hasn’t been disappointed by the pace of donations and remains hopeful that about $4 million can still be raised for the project.

“When you approach a project like this you have to test the waters and see what’s going on out there,” Wilson-Hale said. “I don’t think $2 million is anything to sneeze at.”

The relatively slow fund-raising for the golf course has come amid a boom year, overall, for private donations to WSU. In the fiscal year that concludes at the end of this month, WSU has raised more than its $100 million goal. Wilson-Hale also emphasized that the university is working on a wide range of projects – including a stadium expansion and an overhaul of student housing announced by Floyd – that have also drawn the focus of officials, fundraisers and donors.

“It is not a speedy operation,” she said. “There are other pressing concerns we’re raising money for on the academic side that have a higher priority.”

Eye on the economy

Palouse Ridge will operate at the high end of regional golf courses, along the lines of the Coeur d’Alene Resort course and the Circling Raven course near Worley, Idaho. Weekend greens fees for nonresidents will be $91, much higher than typical municipal courses in the region but in line with those two. Taylor said they’re hoping to market the three high-end courses as a regional package for golfers.

The course is opening at a time when the national golf market is softening. Fewer people are playing and course closures are outpacing the opening of new courses, according to statistics from the National Golf Foundation.

Taylor said the Northwest golf market remains strong and that top-flight courses like Circling Raven are doing well.

The opening also comes as gas and food prices are forcing people to rethink their spending priorities. Taylor said that could work in Palouse Ridge’s favor, if affluent golfers looking for a challenge decide to head to the new course in Pullman rather than flying somewhere.

“I may be Pollyanna about that, but I think it might be good news for us,” he said.

Gary Lindeblad, the head pro at Indian Canyon in Spokane for 25 years, hasn’t seen the new course yet. But he said that if it’s good enough – with challenging play, excellent maintenance and amenities – the golfers will come.

“If it’s really, really, really good, people will go play it,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who will drive 100, 150 miles to play a great golf course. It really boils down to how good it is.”

The university’s interest in a convention center goes back at least as far as its interest in the golf course, and the course is seen as essential to making a convention center work.

Several feasibility studies have been conducted on both projects over the years, records show. Projections for the golf course showed that golf operations alone were liable to lose about $66,000 a year, but Taylor said that food, beverages and pro shop operations in the clubhouse are expected to help Palouse Ridge move into the black.

WSU’s five-year projections for the course show it losing $75,000 in the first year but building toward a net profit of $217,000 by the fifth year. Most of that change is projected to come from increasing rounds played at the course, from 21,600 in the first year to 25,375 in the fifth.

Studies of a hotel/convention center focus on the possibility of capitalizing on visitors and meetings that already come to the university, as well as trying to draw in other types of convention business. WSU and a private developer had agreed to proceed on a $25 million project, but it has been put on hold, Taylor said.

“Because of the climate right now, financing is not as readily available as it was a couple of years ago for projects,” he said.

Meanwhile, the course is on track for its opening later this summer. Practice tees already are open, and with the exception of putting in a few sandtraps, Palouse Ridge is waiting for the grass to grow.

“It’s done,” Taylor said, “except for maturing the turf.”

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