Packing Orders

A change in management at Arthur Pack Desert Golf Course could mean substantial improvements

Pima County has dumped the management company that has run Arthur Pack Desert Golf Course for 25 years.

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to go along with a recommendation--based on staff analysis of five bids--for a 10-year agreement with Wildcat Golf Partners, Inc., a Tucson-based company that relies on the wealth of medical-equipment mogul Hansjorg Wyss.

Wildcat Golf Partners is not to be confused with I.R.I. Golf Management, a rival bidder and an aggressive firm that developed the Wildcat Golf Trail via operation of Arizona National and Forty-Niner golf courses in the Tucson metropolitan area, along with San Ignacio and Canoa in Green Valley and San Pedro in Benson.

Those firms, along with Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf, submitted the strongest proposals.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county needs a boosted share of sales that he said were lagging, as well as a firm with the financial strength to invest heavily and quickly in long-needed capital improvements.

In a bid submitted in April, Wildcat Golf pledged to "immediately invest $2.5 million in bank-certified funds" for the improvements. They include the repair of chronic pumping and irrigation systems that alternately leave parts of the 6,887-yard, par-72 course dry or swampy--like the puddling of water in the fairway on hole nine.

It is that type of quick investment the county is seeking, officials say.

The ride for current manager Southwest Golf, Inc., is nearing completion. The firm includes Tom Chandler, an 83-year-old lawyer and partner in Chandler & Udall and one of the most politically influential men in Tucson political history. Until this year, he served on committees that determine who will be judges in Tucson and Arizona, and he has been the treasurer for the congressional campaign of Raul Grijalva, who was a member of the Board of Supervisors when Chandler's company won easy approval for near-automatic extensions of the lease. He and business partner Howard LaDue have allowed another partner, Stephen T. Porter, to run the Arthur Pack operations.

Chandler has asked for copies of all bids--a move that frequently precedes a formal protest.

Porter has drawn criticism from county officials, as well as longtime Arthur Pack golfers, for what they consider to be absentee management and concentration on businesses elsewhere.

Porter and his partners counter that they have invested heavily--both in money and time--to operate Arthur Pack since 1979. Part of the Southwest Golf proposal whines about the poor condition Arthur Pack was in when Porter's company took over 25 years ago, as well as the difficulties in making improvements. More than a page that was meant to satisfy bid requirements with an explanation of management experience is instead a complaint about the "substandard" condition of "all aspects of the operation."

Porter boasted, however, about improvements to the clubhouse, which has a peculiar Valhalla-like entrance with a wood and vine canopy. On a recent visit, a dead black bird was at the clubhouse's main door, and the near-empty clubhouse was dirty.

Financial records submitted by Southwest state that the company made just $34,353 last year on sales of $1.7 million.

Southwest Golf used its influence to win repeated contract extensions and favorable terms, particularly in 1989 from Gene Laos, the late director of county parks and recreation, and the Board of Supervisors. An agreement in 1989 put responsibility on the county to be more cooperative, even when provisions of the contract were not being fulfilled. It set up arbitration rather than forcing the management out. Southwest Golf pledged as long as 15 years ago to spend $150,000 for repairs for the same irrigation pump that remains a problem today, county records show.

In its latest proposal, Southwest committed to spending only $250,000 for capital improvements in the first three years of a proposed 10-year lease, with $300,000 spread out over the next seven years.

That is dwarfed by the proposal from Wildcat Golf, which is offering more than $2.5 million in capital improvements that the company says it can have in place by the end of the year. Chief among the improvements is $1.02 million for redesign improvements and irrigation improvements to holes one, nine and 18, and bunker reconstruction. The redesign, pending final county approval, will be done by Ken Kavanaugh, who designed the city's Dell Urich course 10 years ago. Another $465,000 is earmarked to remodel the clubhouse, with interior improvements, a new entrance and construction of a courtyard. Other improvements include $225,000 for maintenance equipment and $145,000 for a new pump station and central controls.

Wildcat Golf personnel includes Rich Mueller, the Arizona prep champion while at Amphi High School in 1980 and a former touring pro. Wyss, a former European executive for Monsanto, earned an MBA from Harvard University in 1965 and has been chairman of Synthes-Stratec, a developer of medical devices, since 1977. The publicly traded company had sales of $1.2 billion last year. Wyss is a major contributor to social and environmental causes.

The company and other bidders attempted to pump up a commitment to making Arthur Pack an accessible, top-notch course by keeping rates low and building programs for the disadvantaged and specialty events for women. The county owns only one other golf course, the Ajo Country Club, which it acquired as a bailout for the community after copper giant Phelps-Dodge pulled most of its people and operations from Ajo.

I.R.I., which first attracted attention with the acquisition of Raven golf course at Sabino Springs, also pledged to boost rounds and marketing. (It could package Arthur Pack with the five other courses on its Wildcat Golf Trail.) On the money end, I.R.I. pledged a total of $3.03 million in minimum rent and capital improvements that ranged from a high of $1.08 million in the first year to a low of $153,750 in the second year before hitting the mid-$200,000s for the final four years.

The new company is scheduled to take control July 1.

Chandler and Porter are not taking the anticipated change well. In a May 19 letter to Rafael Payan, director of county natural resources and parks, Chandler wrote on law firm stationery on behalf of Southwest Golf to complain that Wildcat Golf officials went to Arthur Pack without a proper appointment.

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