BY KATE TURNER ’21
The South Hadley Selectboard voted unanimously on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to keep the Ledges Golf Course open for another fiscal year. This decision comes despite a recently released report by Town Administrator Mike Sullivan which concluded that Ledges has lost the town $8.5 million since opening.
Ledges belongs to the town of South Hadley, Ma. and has been operational since 2001. The Mount Holyoke golf team does not practice at Ledges. Instead, it uses the Orchards Golf Club, which has been owned by the College since it was built in 1922.
When South Hadley purchased the land for Ledges in 1996, they acquired a bond from the state of Massachusetts dedicating the land to use for passive recreation. A contingency of $766,566 was set aside to cover startup costs related to the course, and in the first year a small debt payment was included in that sum.
“In future years, that debt would be paid by the taxpayer to the highest degree,” said Michael Sullivan in a memorandum he released to the South Hadley Selectboard earlier this year. “When we took the operating losses (including capital), added in the principal and interest, there is a loss of $7,842,427. With indirect costs (unemployment insurance, property and casualty insurance, liquor liability, apportionment of salary costs) we reach a total of $8,546,111 since 2002.”
In fact, Ledges has not turned a profit in any fiscal year since its opening. “Although things have been trending for four to five years in a better direction,” Sullivan explained, “Ledges is just not generating revenue.”
“Honestly, if put to a ballot question, the majority of residents would probably vote to close the course,” said Selectboard member John Hine. “They’re tired of the town subsidizing the whole operation.”
“This is not a decision to take lightly,” Hine explained. “We really need to have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do with that land before we close the course.” In his mind, allowing the course to remain operational for at least another year gives the Selectboard time to take a serious look at their options.
“We have a mandate from the state to provide passive recreation for the townsfolk,” said Hine. To what degree do we keep that land open? Even if the course is shut down, we may spend just as much if not more to make it available for residents.”
“Personally I have played in junior tournaments at Ledges and the Orchards when I was younger. I even did my first golf camp at Ledges. I played the course in high school and I think South Hadley needs to keep the course,” said Caitlyn Richmond ’21, who also plays for the Mount Holyoke golf team.
Richmond added, “It gives people on the other side of town a place to play and place for high school golfers to play. It’s a wonderful changeling course and by taking the course away they are leaving high school golfers with no place to practice during their season.”
Hines’ colleague Ira Brezinsky expects the issue to remain on the Selectboard’s agenda for the next few months. If they have not developed a plan going forward by the second quarter of next year, however, Brezinsky said that “we need to look at closing Ledges down.”
An ideal solution for the Selectboard would be for a private company to take over the entire running of the course. “We certainly don’t have enough time before the next season to do that,” said Sullivan. But in the meantime, as the town puts out a request for a private company’s proposal to take over the course, the focus of the town will be to reduce losses as much as possible.
“I don’t know if anybody can guarantee that the town will make money on this,” said Hine. “The best case scenario is that a private company will take over and get us out of the entire affair.”
“You have to understand that the golf course has been controversial from the very beginning,” Brezinsky said. “But 20 years ago, there was a clear benefit to maintain the open space, to control development to the degree the town could afford to. That land could have been sold and developed into housing, and it would have cost the town quite a bit.”
Sullivan added that the course was built at a time when golf’s popularity was soaring. “I’ve heard it called the Tiger Woods factor,” he explained. “But I’ve found that millennials are less likely to spend four to five hours in open green space looking for a ball. That’s the future. And the desire just is not there.”
According to Hine, if Ledges ever did manage to break even, a lot of townspeople would be in support of keeping the golf course open. But since the beginning of its operation in 2002, the financial drain has made the possibility seem impractical.
“Municipal government is not designed to run businesses,” he said. “I think we’ve tried everything we can, and we just can’t make it work.”
However, he remains hopeful. “We’re going to do the right thing over the next year,” he said. “And then hopefully, we can get to that wonderful place where nobody is happy. You know, there has to be some kind of middle ground. And we’re not going to throw this asset away.”
“It’s gorgeous up there, really gorgeous,” said Hine. “I think that helps put in perspective how difficult a decision this is.”