HARLINGEN — A decades-old document might be standing in the way of the city’s proposed land sale at the struggling Tony Butler Golf Course.

City commissioners were set to meet behind closed doors this week with City Attorney Ricardo Navarro’s law firm “to receive legal advice regarding the city’s legal responsibilities, obligations and options for the disposition of the Tony Butler Golf Course property,” according to the meeting’s agenda.

Earlier this week, Mayor Chris Boswell referred questions to City Manager Dan Serna, who declined comment because discussions are set to take place in executive session.

But City Commissioner Frank Puente said discussions surround a decades-old resolution which restricts the golf course land’s use to parks and recreation.

“The resolution says that the land can’t be used for anything else except for parks and recreation,” Puente said Tuesday.

As a result of the resolution, city officials might be required to call an election to let voters decide whether the city could sell the land, he said.

Puente said officials had planned to sell a 30-acre tract running across holes 19 to 23 of Tony Butler’s so-called nine-hole short course — a favorite among Winter Texans.

“They discovered they couldn’t sell the land and use it as retail or anything else other than parks and recreation,” Puente said. “According to the legal department, to change the resolution it’s got to be decided by the public. It’s got to be put to a vote.”

Proposed land sale

Late last year, commissioners voted to sell holes 19 to 23, a move that would turn the 27-hole facility into an 18-hole golf course to help cut costs.

Puente cast the lone dissenting vote.

“I’m saying lets save the back nine because they’re a favorite of the Winter Texans,” he said Tuesday.

At the time commissioners’ cast their vote, officials estimated the 30 acres along the Interstate 69 frontage road could sell for about $5 million, which would help fund as much as $3.7 million worth of recommended improvements at the golf course, which ran a $169,616 deficit last year.

For about five years, the city-owned golf course has operated in the red.

Since 2013, the course has lost about $1 million.

Golfer enjoys a round at Tony Butler Golf Course in this 2019 Valley Morning Star file photo. (Maricela Rodriguez | Valley Morning Star)

Consultant’s recommendations

In July 2019, officials released a consultant’s recommendations aimed at helping the golf course cut its losses and turn a profit.

Scrapping the nine-hole short course would trim about a third of the 230-acre golf course, slashing maintenance costs.

“Part of the land that holes 19 through 23 sit on may have significant value to the private sector under another land use, possibly providing some of the funding that will be required to renovate the 18-hole course,” the National Golf Foundation, the golf consulting firm hired for $22,000 last year, stated in its 97-page report.

The consultants pointed to “the potential need for parts of the nine-hole course to be repurposed (e.g., through lease to a private entity) in order to fund improvements to the 18-hole course.”

Officials had planned to sell the land to help fund $2.5 million to $3.7 million worth of recommended improvements.

The consultants suggested keeping the nine holes might not be feasible considering fewer players — and fewer Winter Texans — are playing the golf course.

“It is difficult to make a business case for retaining 27 holes when overall utilization rates, based on effective capacity, have declined to 33 percent or lower,” the consultants stated in the 97-page report’s executive summary.

“Though not enough data was available to affirmatively say that holes 19 through 27 lose money, we were told that play on this course during the April through mid-October off-season is minimal,” the report states. “However, the short course is very important to its key user group during the peak season — Winter Texans, who enjoy the short length, affordability and walkability of the nine-hole course.”