Should the city rent out Philly's historic Cobbs Creek Golf Club for $0?

In hopes of returning the century-old Cobbs Creek Golf Club to its glory days, Mayor Kenney’s administration wants to rent out the course to a nonprofit that has vowed to fix it up.

But the cost of rent — $0 — has one Council member calling the plan a sweetheart deal.

At a public hearing Wednesday, Kenney’s aides laid out their case for leasing the public golf course in West Philadelphia to the Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation for up to 70 years.

They said the course, which hosted greats such as Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer in the 1950s, has seen better days. Players complain that the course is muddy. Its clubhouse burned down in 2016, and women have reported being sexually assaulted there in recent years.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, the city’s parks commissioner, said the nonprofit will raise an “initial $20 million” to improve the 265 acres at Cobbs Creek as well as Karakung Golf Course and the City Line Sports Center. It will also build a new clubhouse for Cobbs Creek, she said, which will include a public restaurant.

“The course suffers from a lack of capital maintenance and frequent flooding,” said Lovell. “The Department of Parks and Recreation would like to return [it] to its place as a first-class public golf course.”

Councilmen Curtis Jones Jr. and Kenyatta Johnson introduced legislation to authorize the lease, which would begin as a 30-year contract and could be renewed three times after that for an extra 40 years. Cobbs Creek Golf Club currently has a concessions agreement with Billy Casper Golf that ends this year.

According to documents from the Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, the mission of the nonprofit is to restore the golf course. The group is made up of golf aficionados and political power players.

On Wednesday, Councilwoman Cindy Bass criticized the proposal to rent out the golf course at no cost, as well as the city government’s plan to invest $1.5 million into the organization’s renovations. That funding will come from an insurance payment made to the city after the fire at the clubhouse.

“We are a city that is financially cash-strapped,” said Bass. “The idea that we’re giving away 265 acres … [and] we’re also adding $1.5 million into the pot … it’s a sweet deal if you can get it. But it doesn’t help our School District.”

The Cobbs Creek proposal comes at the same time that Kenney is asking Council members to increase the city’s real estate tax for the fifth time in the last decade to raise money for the city’s underfunded schools.

Bass also raised concerns Wednesday that no city residents sit on the foundation’s board, and Cobbs Creek Golf Club is not being funded by Rebuild, Kenney’s $500 million public works program to renovate parks and other properties.

“If we’re doing a $500 million project and this is a $20 million investment, it seems like the City of Philadelphia could have made that investment themselves and had the benefit of the financial gain that would have come from that asset,” she said.

Councilman Al Taubenberger said he shared some of Bass’ worries.

Supporters of the foundation’s plan to renovate the golf course said at the hearing that it will create jobs and help popularize the sport among young people. According to a study by Econsult, Lovell said, the proposal would “create an economic benefit of up to $36 million” to the state’s economy.

City officials said the nonprofit will reinvest all revenues into the golf course.

Chris Lange, president of the Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, said the group would also maintain an exhibit on the history of African Americans in the sport, including the specific role of the Philadelphia course. Black people played at Cobbs Creek, which first opened in 1916, during a time when much of golf was segregated.

The golf course is also known for being designed by Hugh Wilson, the mastermind credited with creating Merion Golf Club.

Despite Bass’ opposition to renting out Cobbs Creek at no cost, she voted with her colleagues Wednesday to give the plan preliminary approval. She said the full Council should have the chance to vote on it. The first date it could do that is June 21.

In an unusual move, though, lawmakers passed the agreement out of the Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs without recommending that the full Council support it. They also said that, if approved, the lease should include a provision to update legislators on the status of the improvements every year.