Developing the Green
AGS brings revenues to airports with golf courses
By Jordanna Smida, Associate Editor
MADISON, WI — Airports across the country are challenged with creating profitable, compatible land use near runway protection zones. Madison Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) is one example of how Aviation Golf Services, L.L.C., (AGS) can resolve those challenges.
AGS, a full service golf development company specializing in the design and construction of golf courses on airport land, originally acquired the project at MSN through informal conversations with airport officials who were looking to generate more revenue. MSN had been struggling to find compatible land use for 256 acres which surrounded the airport’s runway protection zone on the north end. The land, mostly wetlands, had previously been leased for agriculture and only brought the airport revenues of $7,000 a year, explains Charles Peterson, manager of properties and contracts at MSN.
Thomas Sanford, director of development, AGS, hired Fiche Design Group to design the course. "My big concern was I wanted the clubhouse next to the driving range and I wanted them both located on the corner where it would have easy access and visibility from the freeway," he says.
AGS also hired engineering firm Mead & Hunt, of Madison, which had worked with MSN for several years on various projects.
According to Sanford, the land has served as a buffer between the City of Madison and the airport, and has been restricted in it’s use by FAA. Though the land was permitted for other uses, he says, "A golf course was the only thing that would actually create significant revenue for the airport."
AGS intended to hire a director of golf operations for the project. However, Executive Management Company, also of Madison, approached Sanford and took over the lease. Both Dan Fiche, owner and architect of Fiche Design and the course’s new owner, Greg Rice, Executive Management, acted as the general contractors. In the agreement, AGS received payment for out-of-pocket expenses, its developer’s fee, and retains an ownership of the project.
High demand was the most important consideration in developing the course, Fiche says. "In this region you’re going to want 35,000 18-hole rounds available to make the course successful," he states.
On the course, five bridges cross Starkweather creek and other drainage canals, which come into play on several holes. Thus, the developers chose to name the course The Bridges. The course opened this past May and cost about $4.5 million.
A Difficult Lie
The land’s 46 acres of wetlands, a runway protection zone, and a county landfill presented some unique challenges in the design of the golf course.
In developing the Bridges, it was necessary for the developers and the airport to have a minimal effect on the property’s wetlands. When complete, the course’s design affected only one of 46 wetland acres.
Also on the property is a county landfill that has been closed for 30 years. At first there was no intent to utilize the landfill in the design of the course because, according to Sanford, it was still actively producing methane. However, with space running short for an 18-hole course, Fiche designed holes 13 and 14 on top of the landfill, giving them an elevation of about 40 ft., which overlooks part of the airfield and the course. "When you get around to 15 you’re teeing off to the fairway below," Sanford explains.
Another challenge the project faced was the city. At first, the Bridges did not have city’s support, which was hoping to develop its own course nearby. "They (City of Madison) didn’t want private enterprise through us competing with the city golf course which is subsidized by the taxpayers," says Peter Drahn, MSN airport manager.
"Eventually calmer heads prevailed and realized that government should not be competing with private enterprise, which is our philosophy out here. We’re trying to encourage private enterprise and businesses to invest and develop their own developments using their own resources," he says.
Peterson adds that area residents "saw a tremendous improvement potential of the land from swamp land and corn stalks to a beautiful golf course."
Noise was also an original concern, but according to Fiche, "It became more of a novelty. The golfers see the jets or F-16s fly in and they stop and watch."
The Bridges is located in both the airport’s flight path and in a migratory pattern. Therefore, one of the largest concerns for the Department of Natural Resources, the airport, and the FAA were birds in particularly, geese.
Rice and the course superintendent worked with airport officials to develop and implement a wildlife management plan, which included allowing the areas around the wetlands to grow, becoming a goose deterrent.
"The biggest thing is to keep the geese moving along, keep them from feeling comfortable and establishing a habitat here," Rice says. The course is also using other methods including kevlar wire and grass cutting procedures.
Executive Management has a 50-year lease with MSN for the property. The financial terms of the lease, explains Peterson, are based on a minimum gross receipt with a minimum annual guarantee of $20,000, versus a percentage of the gross receipts starting at two percent. The percentage will increase every five years by one percent, reaching 11 percent over the last five years of the contract, he says.
The airport also has a separate but simultaneous lease agreement with Executive Management for its retired army base, Camp Woodchuck, which was used for ammunition storage. MSN will receive an additional $23,000 a year for that property. Peterson says it will be hard to determine what the airport’s first year of revenue will be, but acknowledges that it’s already an improvement over the agriculture lease. "You add that ($23,000) to $20,000 minimum and we’re at $43,000 versus $7,000," he explains. The course is using the camp for its maintenance facilities and rents out the ammunition bunkers for storage facilities.
Aside from utilizing local businesses for the development and design of the course, all parties involved agree that a project of this magnitude really benefits the city.
Besides it’s convenient city location, the course is accessible via the city’s bike path, which winds around the course.
Rice says, "You look at the project differently if you have a stake in the community then if you’re an investor from the outside. I’ve been really pushing for a strong junior program here. You don’t get paid for your work up front, but the long term benefits are good because you expose golf to a lot more young people."