City Council heard its second study presentation about Heritage Oaks Golf Course this year at its Tuesday meeting.
Council members asked a variety of questions to the presenters and ultimately said they are looking forward to reviewing the results from the studies as considerations remain about what, if any, changes should be undertaken at the municipally owned facility.
The study results presented Tuesday were for a land-use study. City Council, with a recommendation from City Manager Eric Campbell, commissioned two studies — one on land use and the other on the facility operations — last year as calls were renewed to close or redevelop the property.
The land-use study was completed by the state-affiliated Urban Land Institute, and Sal Musarra, chair, and Jessica Rossi, planner, gave the presentation.
Musarra and Rossi laid out the three scenarios the study came to: retain and enhance, partial redevelopment and complete redevelopment.
The first scenario, retain and enhance, was identified as the most in line with the city’s goals for the site, followed by partial redevelopment. Complete redevelopment was ranked last. However, they said any approach can meet city goals if conducted well.
Masurra said the park is a great asset for the city and its quality is something that should be taken into account when deciding if changes to the number of holes or redevelopment should be pursued.
“We think golf is just fundamentally an element of the overall parks and recreation system is valid,” he said. “If this were a municipal course which was not well-maintained, was not great in any way, shape or form, maybe we’d think differently, but this is a pretty high-quality asset in terms of what you have today.”
Regardless, partial and complete redevelopment would create benefits, such as new housing in an area with good surroundings, according to the experts.
“Some of the benefits is that it would provide new housing connectivity to adjacent parks, and there’s certainly great schools in the area and great recreation opportunities,” Rossi said.
However, it would have drawbacks because new development would require new city assets, such as water and sewer lines to new homes and businesses.
“You can objectively say that redevelopment is going to be challenging or less successful against limiting burdens on the city budget,” Musarra said.
Rossi and Musarra also said the city needs to come to terms with the expectations for the park, and that will play into any decision about its future, such as if the city accepts it will never make money.
“The reality is that in most places these assets are not self-sustaining,” Musarra said. “They are not profitable, per se.”
He said the uptick in golf interest during the pandemic should not be expected to continue in the future as council decides what to do with the golf course.
Councilwoman Laura Dent was the first to ask a question after the presentation. She said the study’s limited outcome of retention, partial redevelopment and complete redevelopment drive the conversation toward retention due to the unpopularity of using some of the course land for housing.
“What I found disappointing about this study is the limited options it considers,” Dent said.
The park could be many more things, such as home to a music venue, that would draw more people to it, according to Dent. She cited the recent example of the rarely used Ralph Sampson Park tennis courts that have been converted to futsal courts and are now in constant use.
“I think a more creative expansion of our city park would be a far better use of our land,” she said.
Councilman Sal Romero asked how much a role the 1,000-respondent survey results had on Urban Land Institute’s recommendation.
“The question about redevelopment and doing other things was asked two or three different ways and it came up pretty heavily on the ‘not change it’ side,” Musarra said.
Earlier in the presentation, Musarra said golf can be an exclusive activity with a “narrow” section of the public interested in it.
Romero said he was skeptical of the results of the survey because people who respond to surveys may feel passionately, but the rest of the public must also be engaged for their thoughts on a public asset.
“Surveys typically engage the already engaged,” Romero said, citing his 15-plus years of experience working with the Harrisonburg City Public Schools engagement work.
“I feel like for me, this is good information, but I feel like I still need to talk with people in the community who need to be in the conversation,” Romero said. “I think that’s key. We need to involve more people in the conversation.”
Councilman Chris Jones said the neutral information from the studies needs to get into the hands of the public.
Jones also brought up access to the facility. He said even though it is nice, people don’t commute from one side of the city to another for a park — they go to their nearest park.
“I think it’s a big part of the conversation that I’ve yet to hear anyone say in the last 10 years,” Jones said.
Romero said he had never been to the park until last year even though he has lived in the area for over three decades.
Mayor Deanna Reed thanked Rossi and Massura for being realistic about what redevelopment of the site requires.
“So many people have different ideas of what to do with the golf course, but it’s a process,” Reed said. “Just because you have a massive piece of land, you can’t throw anything on it and expect it to be successful.”
Councilman George Hirschmann agreed council’s best action would be wait, consider the results of the study and see the progress already being made at Heritage Oaks since the first study was completed.
“There are things happening now that weren’t happening six months ago, the way it’s run, and I think it’s going to make quite a difference,” he said.