PGA deal no sure thing

Critics, including many on the Fresno City Council, have challenged Mayor Alan Autry over how much risk the city should take in helping billionaire developer Donald Trump revive the stalled Running Horse golf course.

But few have questioned a key premise behind the effort -- that a successful project will attract a PGA Tour event and provide a big economic boost to the city.

Completing the original Running Horse vision of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course will attract the PGA Tour, along with all the dollars such an annual event would bring, its supporters say.

And the 780 high-end homes to be built around the course will raise property values and spur additional development in southwest Fresno, they contend.

But the city has no commitment from the PGA Tour and has conducted no study to show how much it will help the local economy.

Autry has said a finished Running Horse development won't just bring new homes, but also new commercial development to serve those homes. The project also will bring jobs and help raise incomes and reduce crime in a long-neglected part of the city, he believes.

He considers the goal of completing the project so important that he is asking City Council members to allow the city to buy some parcels at Running Horse and sell them to Trump -- a step the celebrity developer has said is essential to keep him involved in the project.

"A championship golf course in southwest Fresno, by a proven developer with the resources to carry through the bad times, not just the good times -- they just don't come wandering down the dirt road that often," Autry said.

There is little doubt that bringing the PGA Tour to Fresno would help boost the city's image, said Steve Geil, president of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County.

"You'd have positive national exposure for Fresno, which highlights our region," he said.

Leaders of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Jobs Initiative and the Fresno Visitors and Convention Bureau also have said a Trump-built golf course community could burnish Fresno's reputation and attract visitors and development to the region.

But developing the project in the midst of a housing downturn could be difficult, and anyone who takes on the task likely will take many years to complete it, developers say.

And the economic punch of bringing a PGA Tour event to Fresno -- with its promise of television exposure and tourist dollars from visiting golf fans -- may not be as great as PGA Tour officials and Running Horse backers previously have estimated, according to the results of other similar events around the country this fall.

This year, for the first time since the mid-1960s, Fresno was supposed to have a PGA Tour event -- the Running Horse Golf Championship. But this spring, it became clear that Running Horse would not be completed in time.

Original Running Horse developer Tom O'Meara first brought up the possibility of a PGA Tour event in an interview with The Bee in 2002. The PGA Tour committed to Fresno in 2006 -- on the condition that the course was complete.

But O'Meara's ambitious project stalled early this year when the developer ran into financial difficulties. In March, O'Meara transferred ownership of Running Horse to one of its builders, Mick Evans, who then placed the project in bankruptcy.

That forced PGA Tour officials to move the event planned for Fresno this year to Port St. Lucie, Fla. Now PGA Tour officials say the organization is still interested in Fresno, but they aren't making any promises Fresno would be put back on the list if the project is completed.

"Fresno has been appealing to us as a really good market for one of our fall series events," said PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs. "Clearly, the barrier there is the very unclear status of the Running Horse property and the ultimate disposition of that."

Though it has no PGA Tour commitment, Autry's administration has said that completing Running Horse quickly -- before the PGA Tour decides to abandon its plans for an event in Fresno -- is an important reason for the city to get involved.

The PGA Tour hasn't been to Fresno since the Fig Garden Opens at San Joaquin Country Club in 1963 and '64.

In 1992, the fledgling Ben Hogan Tour (now called the Nationwide Tour) held the Fresno Open at Fort Washington Country Club. The event, with a total purse of $125,000, didn't return in 1993. The Nationwide Tour and its predecessors are the developmental tour for the PGA Tour.

This spring, a PGA Tour official suggested that the event formerly set for Fresno -- part of the PGA Tour's new seven-event Fall Series this year -- could bring as much as $7 million in direct spending to the region, said Geil, the economic development official.

Autry said PGA Tour officials told them visitor spending at local restaurants, hotels and other businesses also could yield as much as $40 million in indirect revenue.

But at least two cities that held similar PGA Tour Fall Series events this year have seen visitor spending come in far below those amounts.

That could be because the fall events don't feature the most successful and famous golfers and come after the completion of the higher-profile Tour Championship in September.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority didn't track visitor spending for the Open event this fall, said Kris Tibbs, senior research analyst. But at a PGA Tour event last year with a similar lineup of players, about 11,000 attendees spent only about $2.5 million, according to a survey, Tibbs said.

And in Scottsdale, Ariz., a PGA Tour 2007 fall event drew only 27,000 spectators, said Steve Geiogamah, tourism development coordinator for Scottsdale's Economic Vitality Department.

Not all the effects of PGA Tour fall events can be counted in direct visitor spending, said Tony Piazzi, president and chief executive of the nonprofit organization Golf San Antonio.

His organization, which holds the PGA Tour fall series event in San Antonio, found that it helps promote the city's golf industry to visiting businesspeople and tourists, he said.

Karla Ewert, a spokeswoman for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce in Omaha, Neb., agreed that a PGA Tour event -- in Omaha's case, the Cox Classic -- helps bring national attention to the community through television and other media exposure.

"It's about making people understand that Omaha is a great place to live and work and do business -- and that we also have wonderful things like the Cox Classic," she said. The chamber hasn't calculated the direct economic benefits of the event, however.

Even without a PGA Tour event, a completed Running Horse project likely would bring its own economic benefits, developers and government officials said.

First, it would generate millions of dollars in additional tax money for the city of Fresno and Fresno County, Fresno City Manager Andy Souza has pointed out.

It also could lead to new shopping centers, restaurants, hotels and other commercial development to meet the needs of the people moving into the new homes, Autry said.

The city has not yet done a study to assess the potential economic effects of a completed Running Horse project, Autry said, though city staff are now trying to assess some of the potential benefits.

Still, Autry said he doesn't need a study to show him what he says are self-evident benefits to come with such a large-scale project.

"There will be grocery stores. There will be commercial development happening around the area," he said.

But Antonio Avalos, assistant professor of economics at Fresno State, said the city's promises of new development around a completed Running Horse are subject to many factors outside the city's control.

"There is much uncertainty," Avalos said -- even if the city does succeed in crafting a deal with Trump that allows the developer to start building the Running Horse project.

"Any new development like this one is certainly capable of attracting new dollars into the local economy," he said. But "what you need first is people to buy those homes. If we assume that we're going to have about 800 new, wealthy households living in that area, certainly you'll see some spillover effect -- but that's a big if."

Also, Avalos said, building out such a project will take "a significant amount of time -- perhaps years. With the housing market as it is, it will be a hard sell."

Jeff Roberts, vice president of Granville Homes in Fresno, agreed that any developer who takes on Running Horse -- and those who hope to piggyback on the project with development nearby -- would have to contend with the current downturn in the housing market and a build-out schedule that could stretch over a decade.

Granville Homes is one of two developers building homes at Copper River Ranch, a development near the Copper River Country Club in north Fresno, which includes a golf course. So far Granville has built about 70 homes there, but the project's 15-year plan calls for 2,800 homes, townhouses and apartments to be built eventually, Roberts said.

But the housing market downturn now sweeping the nation and the Valley has slowed home sales "at all projects, including Copper River," he said.

That means that any developer taking on Running Horse would likely face a hard time selling high-end homes over the next few years, he said.

Still, "I'm a glass-half-full person," he said. "I've seen a couple of these cycles over the past couple of decades, and I'm optimistic that things will turn around" in the housing market.