As UND revives Ray Richards Golf Course and watches the clock run out on its men's golf program, documents obtained by the Herald reveal disgruntled donors and a costly change of direction.
UND, which closed the course in the fall of 2016 amid state budget cuts, originally announced plans to sell the course with portions of the profits put toward an endowment to fund the men's golf program. The men's team was cut in 2016 but allowed to continue year-to-year only through private fundraising.
UND leaders said the intended sale of the course would fulfill the intent of the original gift from the Richards family by supporting the men's golf program.
On July 23, 2018, Holly Douglass, the grandniece of Ray Richards and the family spokesperson, emailed UND Alumni Association CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink to express her displeasure.
"The Ray Richards descendants' first and primary objective is to have the Ray Richards Golf Course reopened," Douglass wrote. "This has been our plea since we first learned of the course closure. There was no question of (Richards') clear intent when he made this gift, and we, his family, are still upset his golf course was summarily closed by President (Mark) Kennedy without our knowledge or prior consultation. Whatever can be done to unwind this wrong and to reopen the golf course continues to be our very, very strong wish. No reasoned explanation has ever been provided as to why it cannot be reopened."
The nine-hole course, named after UND alumnus Ray Richards, who died in 1972, was farmland donated to the university in 1962 with the understanding it would be used as a golf course. The land sits near the intersection of DeMers Avenue and South 42nd Street.
At one point, emails indicate the Richards family was comfortable with the sale of the land if it set up an endowment for men's golf (the endowment was estimated at $4.1 million), with potential excess funds going to indoor golf space attached to the proposed High Performance Center's Phase 2.
Last summer, however, the university pivoted on the length of time the endowment covers-telling the Richards family that even the sale of the land wouldn't guarantee permanent protection for the men's golf program.
"What is so troubling now ... is the fact that such an endowment would not be permanent," Douglass wrote to Zink on July 23. "How can you promise to fund the golf program in perpetuity if the $4.1 million fund itself is subject to invasion, modification or re-direction of distributions? (UND Vice President for Finance and Operations Jed Shivers) seems to be saying to you that he can 'guarantee' the permanency of the endowment for 15-20 years. If so, why couldn't he 'guarantee' the permanency for 75 years or, for that matter, forever, as was promised?"
Costly change of course
In late October, UND publicly announced plans to reconsider the sale of the course and behind the scenes started to discuss what it would take to reopen the course. UND estimated a cost of $250,000 to restore the course to playing condition, according to an email from UND facilities head Mike Pieper to Kennedy and others on Nov. 15.
According to Pieper's email, restoring all putting greens would cost around $90,000 with an additional $10,000 to restore the fairways and tee boxes. Updating the irrigation system at the course would cost an additional $100,000, while bunker and tree work would total $50,000.
However, those costs don't include hiring staff to run the course or equipment to maintain the course, among other additional potential expenses.
Pieper's email indicated golf carts could be leased by the school.
UND's work to get Ray Richards back to playing shape will start in the spring with a goal of having a "grand re-opening" for the course by fall 2019.
With the course's equipment, the school was starting from scratch in many ways because the university had sold items when the course was shut down in 2016. In an Oct. 25 email, Pieper told Shivers "We sold everything of value (i.e. lawn equipment, greens equipment, carts, irrigation, pumps, irrigation controls, etc.) to try to pay off the deficit we had on our books," he wrote.
Revenue options up in the air
In Pieper's recommendations, the size of the proshop would be reduced and part of the clubhouse renovated to add a sports bar and grill.
Shivers said the university is considering using its own food service operations, but there is still a potential for external vendors. If UND decided to outsource its food service operations, the selected vendor would invest the needed capital into the venue and manage it, Pieper wrote.
The move would also require expanded outdoor seating, work to the restrooms, a reconstructed parking lot and other maintenance.
"The expanded sports bar & grill venue will be key to sustaining the course and clubhouse," Pieper wrote.
The university has also expressed interest in offering activities other than golf at the course, including drone racing, cross-country competitions or other activities to help bolster revenue in the offseason.
Shivers said he could picture a clubhouse mixed with both a traditional golf appearance and an area for drones. Donor opportunities such as hole naming, cart sponsorships or a recognition wall at the course could expand revenues, the document stated.
Altru Health System was mentioned as a possible partner with UND potentially making a certain number of rounds of golf available to Altru employees in exchange for course sponsorship.
In addition to the equipment and course costs, UND Athletic Director Bill Chaves sent an email reminder Nov. 4 to UND administrators that cutting men's golf would trigger a $150,000 penalty from the Summit League for cutting a conference sport.
UND administrators were in consistent contact with a core group of golf donors known as the Fore UND Golf Committee, a roughly 10-member group that became disappointed in UND's change in position.
In a Nov. 28 email, committee co-chair Pat Traynor told Shivers "we have requested multiple meetings with President Kennedy. We were told that he would not meet with us until sometime next year. We have other documented instances where President Kennedy simply never responded to our requests. This is disappointing."
In a Nov. 2 email, Richard Anderson-another committee co-chair of the group that had raised more than $150,000 to keep the golf program afloat the past two years-voiced his displeasure at the school's direction.
Anderson, who describes two meetings in which he was assured by UND leaders men's golf would be reinstated, said going back and asking donors for more is problematic because there's now a lack of trust in UND's position on the issue.
Mixed emotions for Richards family
In an email to the Herald, Douglass said she and her family were happy to see the course being reopened.
"We are thrilled that the Ray Richards Golf Course will be reopening and appreciative of UND's efforts to honor and respect the intent of our Great Uncle Ray who gave this land for the specific purpose of building a nine-hole golf course for UND students and staff and the general public to enjoy," the family said in a statement.
In a Nov. 8 email to UND leaders, however, Douglass both expresses her happiness in the course reopening and points out displeasure in getting to that point.
"You have a self-inflicted wound," she told administrators. "You chose to close a golf course which was in its prime, sell off the equipment and leave the clubhouse to the mice and weather. Instead, the golf course could have remained operational these last two years."
Closure of the golf course was already being considered before Kennedy started his term in July 2016, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said. However, Kennedy said he and his administration accept full responsibility for decisions made.
"I feel good about the decision that we're moving forward with and I think it holds promise of being exciting in terms of aligning with the academic mission of the university," Kennedy said. "I don't know that it was a mistake to close the golf course because the question of whether or not it is vitally important that the University of North Dakota maintains a nine-hole golf course is a very valid question to ask."
The decision to close the course in 2016 was made when different factors were at play, Johnson said, noting that adding UAS projects was a dynamic idea that changed the conversation.
UND's timeline to address the future sponsorship of men's golf is running out. The school provided the donors a Feb. 1, 2019, deadline to raise $162,261 to sponsor the team in the 2019-2020 school year.
As Feb. 1 approaches, Chaves said discussions about the future of the golf team and the private funding for it are still "in process."
"I think given the fact that there's new information that has occurred with the reopening of the golf course, it's kind of reset the situation," Chaves said. "You never know what's going to transpire until the particular date occurs."
When asked about his confidence level surrounding private funding for the team, Chaves said he is not one to make predictions.
"I think always the hope and the thought is that it occurs for sure, that's the hope," he said. "But it would be hard for me to make that prediction at this point."
It is projected that through the 2024 fiscal year, operating, scholarship and labor costs to support the team would be more than $150,000 a year, according to projected calculations.