At tonight’s Council meeting, Mayor Gilmore will hand out certificates to 11 Alameda citizens thanking them for their service on various City boards and commissions. One of the recipients is my wife, Jane Sullwold, the outgoing chair of the Alameda Golf Commission.
When the Mayor presents the certificates, she undoubtedly will be her usual gracious self, and I’m sure the certificate will contain appropriately laudatory language. But here’s what the certificate the Mayor hands to Jane should say:
Thanks, Jane, for saving the Chuck Corica Golf Complex.
Now, I’m not claiming that Jane deserves sole credit for this achievement. It couldn’t have happened without the inspired analysis of Joe Van Winkle, the steadfast devotion of Norma Arnerich, or the wise counsel of Tony Corica. And the other members of the Golf Commission, including Bill Schmitz, who is getting his own certificate tonight, played a vital role as well. Forgive me for putting Jane front and center. But that’s the way it went down:
Since 1982, the Golf Complex has consisted of two regulation 18-hole courses (the Jack Clark south course and the Earl Fry north course) and the nine-hole Mif Albright par-three course, which had been designed and built by volunteers and is used primarily by junior and senior golfers. Five years ago, on July 1, 2008, City staff presented Council with a proposal that would change the Golf Complex drastically forever. Based on a “master plan” drawn up by consultants, staff recommended:
- Closing the Mif Albright course permanently.
- Converting the Fry course into a “high end” destination layout — and using the Clark course for landfill;
- Turning over operations of the Golf Complex to a private operator.
This proposal, the politicians insisted, was the only way to solve what they told the public was a “financial crisis” at the Golf Complex. According to then-Mayor Beverly Johnson, the Golf Complex was bleeding money from the City’s General Fund, and she vowed that the City no longer would subsidize its operations. At its July 2008 meeting, Council voted – after midnight – to take the first steps toward transfiguring the Golf Complex.
At the time, Jane was the newly elected chair of the Golf Commission. Already, she had begun the struggle to get the Rec/Park director and other City staff to give the Golf Commission – and the public – the financial information on which staff was basing its recommendations to Council. In retrospect, staff’s stonewalling was understandable. After Jane finally pried the information out of the new Interim City Manager, the truth emerged that the City wasn’t subsidizing the Golf Complex – it was the other way around. On an operating basis, the Golf Complex was making a profit – i.e., revenues were exceeding expenses. But all of the profit, and then some, was being transferred into the General Fund. And the City had come to depend on the money.
There was one other secret that the politicians and bureaucrats were keeping from the Golf Commission and the public: Real estate developer Ron Cowan had been denied permission to build houses on vacant land he owned at Harbor Bay Isle. He came up with a plan – which he still maintains was suggested by City staff — for exchanging that parcel for the land on which the Mif Albright course sits and replacing the par-three with a housing development. Jane and other golfers had gotten wind of a possible deal between the City and Cowan. But when Jane brought up the subject at a Council meeting, Mayor Johnson dismissed it as a mere rumor – even though a closed-door negotiating session on the proposal had been scheduled that very day.
Getting rid of the Mif was key to the covert deal with Cowan. The City bowed to pressure to keep the course open during the summer of 2008, then closed it again in November. This prompted Joe VanWinkle and his then 11-year-old son, Glenn, to start a campaign to re-open “the kid’s course.” Joe put together a proposal for non-profit operation of the Mif; Norma got the Alameda Junior Golf Association to back the concept, and Jane enlisted support from the Golf Commission. In April 2009, Joe, Norma, Jane, and, most importantly, the members of the Alameda High girls’ golf team hijacked staff’s intended presentation to Council of “alternative uses” for the Mif by offering the non-profit option for operating the course. A month later, the Mif was re-opened with much fanfare.
But the plan to kill off the Mif wasn’t dead. A day before New Years 2010, staff released a Council agenda containing the recommendation – once again – to close the Mif permanently because it was a money loser. Jane knew the premise was false, and, although it was a holiday weekend, she sought to schedule a special meeting to get the Golf Commission on record in support of keeping the Mif open. The Rec/Park director refused to post the required meeting notice, so Jane did it herself. With Jane taking the lead, golfers packed City Council chambers on January 6, 2010, and got Council — in another post-midnight vote — to reject staff’s latest recommendation.
Staff had another trick up its sleeve. Despite direction from Council to “engage the community” in the planning process, the Interim City Manager spurned Jane’s offer of assistance from the Golf Commission and drafted and issued her own request for proposals for a long-term operator. KemperSports, whom the City had selected as the interim operator, got the nod. KemperSports then proposed to close the Mif and to reduce the number of regulation holes from 36 to 27. This was the only economically viable plan, KemperSports insisted – and the only one to which it was willing to contribute any of its own capital.
The golf community hated to see the Golf Complex bowdlerized in such a fashion, and Jane led the opposition before Council. But the politicians appeared to be willing to go along for financial reasons – until KemperSports was forced to admit, after a new interim city manager was appointed, that it really didn’t intend to put any of its own money into the project. Instead, it allegedly was relying on a secret promise made by the prior ICM that the City would float a bond to cover the renovation costs. After Council nixed that idea, KemperSports, ever accommodating, announced that a 36-hole complex suddenly was feasible after all.
Now it was time for Cowan to emerge from the shadows. At an April 2011 Council meeting, Cowan’s spokesman delivered a letter revealing what became known as the Swap: the Mif for vacant land owned by Cowan on North Loop Road. Cowan would build 130 homes on the Mif site; the City could build youth sports fields on the North Loop Road parcel. And Cowan would sweeten the pot with $5 million to be used as the City saw fit. Staff professed its pleasure with the proposal, especially after the Rec/Park director presented appraisals purporting to show that the Mif land and the North Loop property were worth just about the same amount. KemperSports immediately obliged by retuning its lease proposal to accommodate Cowan. Youth sports advocates, long-dismayed by the dearth of fields on the island, jumped on board.
Unlike some, Jane didn’t reject Cowan’s scheme out of hand, but she quickly became an ardent opponent. To her, the plan seemed like a cynical attempt to circumvent the prohibition in the City Charter against selling parkland without voter approval. And the arguments in its favor began to melt away. For example, when Jane reviewed the appraisals, she saw that the Rec/Park director had told the appraiser to use an incorrect set of assumptions. At her prompting, new City Manager John Russo had the Mif property re-appraised, and the asserted equivalence in value disappeared. Jane also believed that Council should be given options other than a swap with Cowan and a lease to KemperSports. She urged the Mayor and Council to send out a revised request for proposals for a long-term operator. When they agreed, she personally re-wrote (with Joe’s help) the incoherent draft prepared by the City’s golf consultant. The revised RFP led to a competing bid from Greenway Golf for a true renovation of the Golf Complex.
After the battle was over, a City Hall insider chastised opponents of the Swap for not realizing that the deal was dead as soon as Mayor Gilmore went along with issuing a new RFP. But Cowan, KemperSports, and their allies never got the message, either – or at least that’s how they acted. A quickly formed “youth sports coalition” blanketed the Island with brochures touting the Swap, and, using a Website registered to Cowan’s public relations firm, blasted emails to persons who had signed up to receive notice of promotions from the Golf Complex. To enable the blast to take place, KemperSports gave Swap supporters, with the consent of the City Attorney, a confidential list of email addresses. (When Jane and the Golf Commission protested, KemperSports declined to respond and the City Attorney took the position that the list was a public record). For his part, Cowan upped the cash portion of his offer to $7.2 million.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that Jane and those who had fought alongside her for four years went to City Hall on March 6, 2012 for the decisive Council meeting. Other than Doug deHaan, no Council member had declared publicly how he or she would vote. The staff report avoided taking a position. Well-known youth sports supporters showed up to argue passionately for the Swap. But, ultimately, Jane and the opponents carried the day, and Council voted unanimously – and, fittingly, after midnight – to reject the Swap.
Tonight, the last item on the agenda is the Mayor’s announcement of her appointments to various commissions, including replacements for Bill and Jane on the Golf Commission. The two new Golf Commissioners will join the three incumbents in writing the next chapter in the history of the Chuck Corica Golf Complex. One hopes they will remember that it was Jane Sullwold and her valiant band of brothers and sisters who made it possible for them to have that chance.