Weatherwax has become the latest casualty among the region’s golf courses.
At least eight golf courses in the region have closed or have had announced plans that they will close in recent years, casualties of an overbuilt industry than has lost millions of customers since the high-water mark in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, MetroParks of Butler County announced it had purchased Weatherwax Golf Course and planned to combine it with the adjacent Sebald Park to create the new Elk Creek MetroPark.
Weatherwax will remain a 36-hole golf course until Nov. 6, 2016, according to its general manager, Jim Kraft.
The grant funding used by MetroParks to purchase the land is only for passive recreational purposes, according to Kelly Barkley, MetroParks’ senior manager of community relations. Operating a golf course does not fit in that criteria, she said.
Weatherwax’s closure will leave less than 100 courses operating in the 14-county territory served by the Miami Valley Golf Association.
“It’s a demographics game,” MVGA executive director Steve Jurick told this news outlet last year. “We’ve lost a lot of mid-level, white-collar positions. Blue-collar positions are working more, there’s less factory employment.
“When you bring tech in, it’s not that they don’t play golf, it’s just that it’s not core to who they are as some of the more traditional career paths.”
According to a study by the MVGA, the loss of more than 3,600 members at the region’s private golf clubs since 2006 has had a negative impact of $136 million on the clubs.
Change of course
Weatherwax is owned by Myron Bowling, who is leasing the golf course to Kraft. Bowling, also owner of Myron Bowling Auctioneers Inc. in Hamilton, purchased Weatherwax last year for $1.6 million from the city of Middletown.
The 456-acre property will provide opportunities for thousands of Butler County residents and future sports tourism events such as regional cross country meets, triathlons, equestrian events and more, according to MetroParks.
Kraft and several golfers questioned why MetroParks purchased Weatherwax instead of developing different property in the county. They also said they don’t believe there are enough horse owners in the county to support that proposed use.
“People are upset, disappointed,” Kraft said. “It’s hard to believe, really.”
Kraft said he believes the city sold Weatherwax “a little quick” and probably should have considered additional offers. In February 2014, the city received two offers for the golf course: $1.6 million from Bowling, and $225,000 from MiddCities in Cincinnati.
Sale impacts prep golfers
Richard W. Slagle, 88, was one of those Middletown residents who figured Weatherwax would be a course forever. When Weatherwax was only a dream, Slagle was pushing for it to be a reality. He served as chairman of the city’s golf commission and there’s a monument in his honor near the clubhouse.
Slagle said he “never dreamed” Weatherwax would be sold and the news was “hurtful” because he, like other city leaders, spent countless hours getting the course built.
Several golfers who were waiting to tee off Friday morning blamed the city for selling the property, though the city was losing money every year operating Weatherwax. They also were concerned that the area high school golf teams won’t have a course to play after the 2016 season.
Ironically, the Greater Miami Conference boys golf tournament was played Thursday morning at Weatherwax. The finals of the boys and girls GMC tournament are set for today.
As Kraft discussed the future of the course, he received a phone call from a representative of the Southwest District of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The man was concerned about Weatherwax and whether the facility could host the 2016 Division I and II districts.
Kraft said the coaches probably will vote on the 2016 site early next month when Weatherwax hosts the 2015 districts. He said about 10 area high schools traditionally play some of their matches at Weatherwax. One of those is Middletown High School.
Gary Lebo, MHS athletic director, said it was “too bad” the city was unable to maintain the course given its long history. He said there has been no discussion with his boys and girls coaches about where to hold their matches during the 2017 golf season.
Returning land to natural habitat
When approaching Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national non-profit organization, Bowling expressed a desire that the site be maintained as open space and an asset to the community, according to a MetroParks news release.
TPL, whom MetroParks had worked with in the past, made MetroParks aware that land, adjacent to Sebald Park, was on the market. MetroParks owns and operates Sebald Park in Madison Twp. and shares more than a mile of common boundary to the Bowling property.
“It was, therefore, logical for MetroParks to pursue, in the public interest, the expansion of Sebald Park through the acquisition of the property in order to ensure continued public enjoyment and access,” said Greg Amend, president of MetroParks’ Board of Park Commissioners.
“Funding to pay for the acquisition of the land and its conversion to a natural area public park open to all will be available at almost no local cost through a combination of donated value, labor, state and federal funds,” he said.
Barkley said the Clean Ohio Fund was providing $2.3 million for the purchase and that the federal Land/Water Conservation Fund was providing $90,000 for restoration work to return the property to its natural habitat. She said the MetroParks general fund would be contributing $10,000 toward the acquisition.
“Mr. Bowling had looked at various options and thought it was in everyone’s best interest to keep it as open space for public use,” she said.
Barkley said after MetroParks takes ownership of the property and after planned natural habitat restoration is complete, master planning sessions will occur through a well announced public process to determine what the detailed usage plans will be on the newly combined Elk Creek MetroPark.
The significance of the purchase is “not what won’t happen there, but what will happen there in the future that makes this change in the use of the property important to the residents of Butler County,” said Jonathan Granville, MetroParks executive director.
This article contains previous reporting by Staff Writer Brian Kollars.