When Government Goes Off Course

By Benita M. Dodd

Benita Dodd Vice President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Benita Dodd
Vice President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Stephen Goldsmith was a champion of privatization and outsourcing of government operations during his tenure as mayor of Indianapolis. He recalled in his 1997 book, “The Twenty-First Century City,” how he used what he called the “yellow pages” test: “Look at the city’s yellow pages. If the phone book lists three companies that provide a certain service, the city probably should not be in that business, at least not exclusively.”

“The best candidates for marketization are those for which a bustling competitive market already exists. Using the yellow pages tests, we could take advantage of markets that had been operating for years.”

“We consistently showed that free-market competition could do something critical to solve the fiscal crisis facing state and local governments all over the country: It could increase services while reducing costs, thereby changing the basic equation that describes government failure everywhere today. Competition could stop the spiral of higher taxes paying for worse services.”

Unfortunately, Tommy Pilcher of Ellaville, Ga., knows all too well what happens when the trend is reversed, when government intervenes in the “bustling competitive market.”

In 2005, after working 20 years as a golf course superintendent, Pilcher purchased Wolf Creek Golf Club in Americus. It had 260 members. By 2007, Pilcher recalls, membership was up to 330. At the time, there were two other golf courses in the area: Brickyard Plantation, opened in 1979, and the Americus Country Club, opened in 1947 but struggling when members sold it to Georgia Southwestern Foundation in 2004 for $575,000.

The school’s Foundation spent more than $1 million improving the property before gifting it to the Georgia Southwestern State University in 2007, and it was renamed the Griffin Bell Golf Links and Conference Center. At the time, it was appraised at $1.7 million, with another $392,000 in repairs and renovations projected over five years, along with $200,000 in greens upgrades.

The property was accepted on the understanding that it was needed as part of the university’s application to the Professional Golf Association (PGA) to offer a PGA-approved Professional Golf Management program. Also, it was “subject to a reversion to the Foundation” if the PGA approval was not obtained within two years.

Golflinks reports that, according to the PGA, a certified head golf professional earns 31 percent more in wages than a non-certified head pro, while a PGA-certified general manager earns 27 percent more than a non-certified counterpart. Nationwide, just 20 universities are accredited to offer the PGA-Certified Professional Program. Six years after accepting the golf course, Southwestern Georgia has a golf management program but it is not PGA-certified.

Pilcher ran Wolf Creek with three employees, even as he watched crews of prisoners working on the university course. A tornado devastated Americus in 2007 and damaged his course. Then the recession hit. Pilcher had neither the Foundation nor the government coffers to help him stay afloat. He thought he could benefit from federal stimulus funds or a low-interest government loan but learned the golf industry was specifically excluded from receiving aid.

Pilcher did all the right things, including working his way through his elected representatives, to no avail. Worse, he points out, local bankers served on the university Foundation board – and had been members of the Country Club before that. When Richard Harris of the local newspaper, The Journal, asked about the connections, the Foundation’s executive director said, “During the time of the purchase, most community members were members of the Americus Country Club in some form or fashion.”

The university’s golf course continues to operate, bleeding money. Pilcher, meanwhile, lost everything. He understands that not everything that happened was the fault of the competing course, but he didn’t have a fighting chance. “What I have endured the last couple of years I don’t wish on anyone,” he said.

“You ask me what I wanted,” Pilcher said recently.

“New policies. I want all golf courses in the state property tax- and sales tax-exempt. I want tax credits for the amount the state saves by using prison labor; state and military golf courses have this advantage.

“I want a law that says the state can’t operate any business.”  

“I want a grant from OneGeorgia to build a new golf course that will draw people traveling through this state.”

“If they can’t do this, I want their Utopia plan: I want a great state job with benefits, and one with the Foundation.”

The pain and frustration Pilcher feels is evident in his wish list as he continues fighting to be heard. A man who wanted an opportunity to succeed is no match for a government “too big to fail.” His American Dream, owning his own golf business, achieved after 20 years of working for others, was a brief nap. Government should never pick winners and losers. Limiting government means limiting taxes, too, so that government never has an unfair advantage over the private sector. Over hardworking Georgians like Tommy Pilcher.