Special Reports

Thousands spent on golf travel for Pierce County officials

Pierce County officials and sheriff’s deputies spent at least $30,000 over the last two years to attend golf championships and other events, including the prestigious U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Calif., last month.

Additionally, Mike Combs, who oversees the Tacoma Dome and other public facilities for the city, took trips costing an estimated $5,200, expense records show.

County receipts for the Pebble Beach trip aren’t in yet, so the total likely will go at least a few thousand dollars higher.

All the trips were part of what’s known as “future site” delegations in the world of the United States Golf Association.

County officials are preparing for the U.S. Amateur Championship at Chambers Bay next month and for the more than 60,000 people a day at the U.S. Open in 2015.

The trips are necessary to ensure the county is ready to showcase its municipal golf course and the rest of the Puget Sound area at a time when “the whole world will be watching,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.

Delegates learn about things such as parking, security and sale of merchandise such as hats and golf shirts, she and others said.

Getting pointers on keeping spectators and golfers safe over a multi-day tournament is particularly crucial because famous golfers such as Tiger Woods can be targets for violence, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg said.

“This is like a Super Bowl for five or six days,” he added. “If you haven’t been, you really don’t understand what a big deal this is. It’s such a huge deal; it means so much to make it right.”

Ladenburg, who championed the construction of Chambers Bay while in the executive’s office, went to the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines near San Diego at county expense, records show. But he believes so deeply in the mission, he said, he paid his own way to the 2009 event in New York and to Pebble Beach in June.

Those who go are working hard behind the scenes to gather information, not gawking at the glitz and glamour of an international sporting event, McCarthy and others said.

Most of the travel expense so far has been paid for out of the county’s general fund.

But donations, merchandise and ticket sales from the upcoming U.S. Amateur paid to send five county employees, including two sheriff’s deputies, to Pebble Beach, county spokesman Hunter George said. The general fund did pay for two other deputies, so the official delegation to Pebble Beach was seven county employees.

Combs, invited by the county to help out with tournament preparations, attends at city expense because there’s value to Tacoma and the entire region in successful events, City Manager Eric Anderson said.

PRACTICES DIFFER

Local governments approach their hosting duties differently.

Patricia Martel, city manager in Daly City, Calif., site of the 2012 U.S. Open, said she doesn’t see a need to check firsthand how the tournament is handled in other cities.

“Since we’ve had it previously, we pretty much know what to expect,” she said, pointing out that The Olympic Club, which straddles Daly City and San Francisco, hosted the 1998 Open.

Municipalities must worry about parking, security and crowds, she added, but the USGA brings in what amounts to its own bustling city with tents and other facilities to handle everything else from souvenir sales to hospitality.

“If I were being involved for the first time, I probably would contact the city where it was going to be held and talk to them, but I don’t think that would require actually going there,” she added.

Officials in Oakmont, Pa., site of the 2016 Open, and Southhampton, home to the Shinnecock Hills golf course, said they don’t go on scouting missions.

But Pierce County is in an unusual position as manager of one of the few municipal courses to stage an Open.

Club officials from private courses such as those in Daly City and other places often make their own advance trips.

The actual host city where Chambers Bay is located, University Place, hasn’t sent anyone to the advance events, Interim City Manager Steve Sugg said. County officials have kept the city informed and passed on information, he added. Sugg said he hopes the city will send someone to an event before 2015.

The USGA sees scouting trips as of incalculable value, particularly in learning about how a host city or area can successfully market itself and how to handle logistics, said Mike Butz, USGA deputy executive director, in e-mailed answers to questions from The News Tribune.

The organization typically names its major golf tournament sites five to seven years in advance, and future host cities begin planning immediately, often with travel to current tournaments, he added.

Who comes and for how long varies, Butz said; delegations range from two or three to 20 or so.

Pierce County and USGA officials predict at least 60,000 people a day will swarm over the Chambers Bay course during the 2015 tournament.

An impact study done by researchers at San Diego State University showed attendance of 273,832 over a seven-day period at Torrey Pines in 2008. They pegged the value of the event at $142 million for the community.

Bruce Kendall, chairman and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma and Pierce County, called it “very appropriate” for county officials to make fact-finding advance trips. And Tammy Blount, president and CEO of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau, agreed.

Blount, who’s attended some tournaments at her agency’s expense, said officials can’t gather the information they need and cement lasting business relationships “by e-mail or conference call.”

SETTING THE STAGE

The aim is to stage a 2015 tournament so spectacular and flawless that Chambers Bay attains a place in the Valhalla of the golfing world – a coveted spot in the U.S. Open rotation, with a major tournament coming around every nine years or so, Ladenburg said.

The county built the course in University Place as part of the reclamation of a former gravel mine. The $21 million course almost instantly gained national acclaim for its design and scenic location when it opened in 2007. But it’s struggled financially, losing $1.3 million last year. Still, Chambers Bay has generated $1.9 million in sales tax dollars since it opened, George said. Pierce County’s cut is about $160,000 for the general fund.

County officials are counting on tournaments such as the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open to exponentially increase that amount.

But “it’s a fair question” to ask about travel expenses, McCarthy said. She called each site totally different and said there’s value to be gained from going on several trips.

Some spouses, including McCarthy’s husband, Pierce County Superior Court Judge John McCarthy, have accompanied county officials on the trips. But they pay their own way and what they do “is their business,” she added, pointing out that John McCarthy took vacation days for the Pebble Beach trip.

The county employees who go “aren’t there just to watch the golf tournament, they’re there to watch how you put on golf tournaments,” said Ladenburg, an avid golfer. “You don’t want to send 25 people or something. That would be silly. But if I were the exec, I would send a few key people every year. ... Everyone’s made some mistakes along the way (in hosting the Open). I think we can learn from them and put on a tournament that the whole world will be watching.”

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659

kris.sherman@thenewstribune.com

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