Pierce County could become an investor in a hotel and a clubhouse at its high-profile Chambers Bay Golf Course. Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg says he’s hiring a hospitality consulting company to explore the feasibility of partnering with KemperSports Management of Northbrook, Ill., to finance a new clubhouse, a restaurant and a hotel at the county-owned links-style course in University Place.
KemperSports, which manages the year-old Chambers Bay course for the county, was the winner among four responding developers who submitted credentials to build the clubhouse and lodging facilities.
Chambers Bay is the site of the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open.
The Chambers Bay course, fashioned from an old gravel pit with a panoramic view of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains, needs a permanent clubhouse and lodging units to handle the expected surge of out-of-town visitors to the course for those major tournaments and for everyday use.
KemperSports suggested to the county that it should consider using some of its low-cost bonding capacity to provide some of the funding for the $35 million worth of new buildings to reduce the overall long-term cost of the project.
“We can borrow money at 4 percent interest, and the commercial lenders want 9 or 10 percent on hotel projects now,” Ladenburg said.
“I think that Chambers Bay is the goose that’s laying golden eggs, and I think we should look at whether we should become a part of that,” the county executive said.
Pierce County Council Chairman Terry Lee said he agrees that Ladenburg should explore the possibilities. The course, which has won honors as one of the country’s best new courses, needs a proper clubhouse to host the big-name tournaments. The present modular clubhouse, said Lee, “has a very temporary feel to it.”
KemperSports’ Chambers Bay manager Matt Allen said he believes the course needs overnight accommodations to handle out-of-town golfers. The course is drawing golfers from around the world, he said. Some 60 percent of the golfers playing the course now are not Pierce County residents. Chambers Bay’s master plan calls for the construction of 124 hotel rooms on the course site.
Allen came to Chambers Bay from Bandon Dunes in Oregon, where private developers erected clusters of townhouse-like accommodations.
Lee said the County Council will want to scrutinize any potential financing deal carefully.
“I think what we’re looking at is some kind of public-private partnership,” he said. The council would likely reject any plan that called for the county to finance all costs, he said.
Ladenburg endured criticism initially for building the kind of high-end course whose greens fees would make the course affordable mostly to affluent golfers. Weekend greens fees for noncounty residents are up to $170. But the county executive said the county’s $20 million investment in the course would more than pay for itself by attracting out-of-town visitors and publicity to Pierce County.
The county has ample bonding capacity to raise the $10 million or so that could be its investment in the clubhouse and hotel venture, Ladenburg said. Revenues from overnight stays, the restaurant, the pro shop and other activities could repay those bonds.
But a News Tribune story in June found that so far the course was struggling to make its budget.
Lee said he wants to make sure that taxpayers don’t suffer if the venture doesn’t work out.
“I don’t want our sewer rates to go up to pay those bonds, and I don’t want to have to raid the general fund,” he said. “Pierce County taxpayers wouldn’t be pleased if we had to take some cops off the beat to pay for a golf course clubhouse,” he added.
When the council agreed to finance the course construction, it said it would consider selling off part of the 933-acre park site to pay off the bonds if revenues failed to meet projections. The course itself occupies about 250 acres. The county has plans to build other public facilities including an arboretum and a dog park.
Ladenburg says that’s why he wants the study first to find out if the market would be strong enough for the new facilities to make money. He said the market study is likely to cost $12,000 to $15,000. The results should be available in few months, he said.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663