Privatizing operations would sustain public golf, allow course renovation
Henrico officials are recommending that the county lease Belmont Golf Course to The First Tee of Greater Richmond, a nonprofit organization that would operate the public course and oversee an immediate renovation and redesign of the facility.
Henrico, which bought the course in 1977 to offer affordable golf to the public, held meetings this spring to seek community input on its future. Belmont has not generated enough revenue to cover its operating costs for years, as play has dropped from about 50,000 annual rounds to about 23,000 rounds during the past 20 years.
“In our community meetings, residents spoke loudly and clearly that they want Belmont to be preserved as a golf course, rather than become a passive park,” said Neil Luther, director of the Division of Recreation and Parks. “Our challenge has been to find a financially sound and sustainable way to do that. By partnering with The First Tee, we believe we can accomplish both goals and position Belmont to be a place where everyone — from beginners to skilled golfers — can play, learn and develop their skills on this historic course.”
At its Dec. 10 meeting, the Board of Supervisors will consider a 20-year lease agreement with The First Tee of Greater Richmond, a chapter of The First Tee, an international organization focused on introducing youth to golf and its values. The Richmond chapter was one of five groups that responded to the county’s request for proposals, issued in August, for private operation of the course, located at 1600 Hilliard Road in Lakeside.
“This agreement aligns perfectly with The First Tee’s mission and our focus on youth development and strengthening the character of our community,” said Brent Schneider, CEO of The First Tee of Greater Richmond. “We are excited about this partnership with Henrico County and opportunity to create an inclusive, innovative and welcoming facility for everyone. Belmont has a tremendous history, and we look forward to honoring the golden era of golf course architecture with the improvements we will make.”
The Richmond chapter operates two golfing facilities in the region — the Tattersall Youth Development Center at The First Tee Chesterfield Golf Course in Chesterfield County and the Elson Redmond Memorial Driving Range in the city of Richmond. In Henrico, the organization also serves 44 schools and nearly 24,000 students through the annual First Tee National School Program.
Under the proposed lease, Belmont would become a no-cost home for Henrico’s high school golf teams and would accommodate community groups, such as the Henrico Police Athletic League.
The First Tee of Greater Richmond has committed $3.25 million for a complete renovation of the 18-hole course. Those funds would be combined with $750,000 already set aside by Henrico for improvements. Chapter officials plan to meet with the community and to work with Love Golf Design, founded by former PGA golfer Davis Love III, on a redesign that would begin in early spring. Belmont would be closed during renovations and expected to reopen in spring 2021.
As envisioned, the project would create a course with 12 championship holes in the tradition of architect A.W. Tillinghast, who designed Belmont in 1917, then-known as Hermitage Country Club. The First Tee plans to add a driving range, a six-hole, par-3 “short course,” a short-game practice area and a putting course. The project also would include building renovations to provide an improved pro shop, concessions and space for youth programs.
“As the site of the 1949 PGA Championship and a major landmark for Lakeside, Belmont Golf Course represents a valuable part of Henrico’s story,” Brookland District Supervisor Dan Schmitt said. “I’m pleased we have found a partner who is eager to reinvest in Belmont in a way that is respectful to its historic design and is fiscally responsible to county taxpayers.”
Fairfield District Supervisor Frank J. Thornton welcomed the community’s input on Belmont’s future and said the renovated course has the potential to expand public access to golf as well as develop the bodies, minds and characters of county youth.
“Belmont Golf Course has a rich and powerful history, but that does not mean its best days should be in the past,” he said. “By working with The First Tee of Greater Richmond, we have an opportunity to improve the course and attract the next generation of players to this wonderful game.”