Tee-Time in Prince Edward: abrupt change from celebration to financial crisis raises questions.
Is this a case of public resources being diverted for private profit?
Were taxpayers blindsided and ripped-off?
Responsible community leaders silent.
Familiar names emerge.
Regular readers of the Iconoclast may recall that I grew up in Southside Virginia as a kid. So here is a new story from my old stomping grounds, the background on which is provided through news clippings and other relevant documents.
If by any chance you happen to be a taxpayer who sometimes wonders where your tax dollars wind up (probably all of our readers) , this ought to get your attention.
Part I: Official Disclaimer-- My personal love of golf!
Not so long ago, I guess I was at my zenith as an aspiring golf champion... you know... the easy money, the chicks, the travel to exotic places.
I was always into sports and my grandfather absolutely loved golf. So I got the bug early and did pretty well as a teenager. But as I grew older other distractions, including a few sports injuries, girls, getting married and starting a family, tragically sidelined my career as a championship golfer.
Be that as it may, I still love golf and still hold the personal belief that there can not be enough golf courses. Every community should have a golf course. What the heck…every neighborhood should have a golf course. And, on top of that, they should all be free to the public or at least very cheap.
Dream on… it ain’t going to happen! Reason being: practical economics.
Golfing is a great sport... but...
Golfing is an expensive hobby. Golf courses are expensive. Unquestionably, golf is the biggest and most expensive "board game" that was ever invented. Golf courses require hundreds of acres to entertain a relatively small number of users... about 150 acres for a 18 hole course built to the latest recommended standards for high quality courses.
But that is not the least of it.
Have you recently checked into the cost of the cutting edge equipment that is a must if you are to be competitive?
I would not say that golf is a sport only for the rich, but it is for people with a fair amount of discretionary disposable income available for recreation. You have got to really love the game in order to willingly soak up those membership dues and green fees, the cost of a decent set of clubs, the travel and incidental costs that seem to just come with the turf. (Sorry about that pun.)
Fact is: The "sport" of golf is about money, real estate, and ... well.... money... Golf courses are often built as "centerpieces" of much larger real estate developments as a way to attract a certain caliber of clientel and their money.
Sometimes there are questions concerning the environmental impacts of golf courses on their host communities, but that is another story.
For the most part, golf courses are nice facilities to have in a community for those who can afford to use them and so long as such developments are paid for by private investors and users.
Having gotten my official disclaimer out of the way, we can now move on to our new unfolding story… a story that has been brought to the Iconoclast by our readers in Southside Virginia over the past several months.
PART II: No public resources at risk?
For months… no… years… the local newspaper, The Farmville Herald, has trumpeted the progress of the long awaited Poplar Hill Golf Course and all that it's supporters have promised in economic development and far reaching benefits to the community.
The new golf course and associated facilities including a suitably impressive clubhouse, inn /hotel, and conference center was to be developed through the publicly sanctioned Poplar Hill Community Development Authority (CDA).
As originally explained in official public records, the CDA project activities were not going to require any investment of County funds and would not put any tax dollars at risk. Official documents report that large "institutional investors" would bear all the risk for the CDA through their purchase of tax exempt bonds. On the basis of these assumptions, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors created the Poplar Hill CDA in 1999.
Earlier this summer, June 14th to be exact, the Poplar Hill Community CDA celebrated a long awaited “Grand Opening” of their brand new and highly acclaimed 18 hole golf course. Other anticipated CDA developed facilities, including the planned club house (a temporary club house was built), the inn /hotel and the conference center would have to wait. The golf course "Grand Opening" was attended by local dignitaries and was reported with great fanfare in The Farmville Herald.
This facility was reputed to have the finest of grasses and was designed and built to “championship” standards as recommended by the United States Golfing Association (USGA).
This is the kind of golf course that aspires to host major golfing events drawing the biggest names in the sport and thousands of avid golfing groupies, who spend millions of dollars in lodging, meals, related entertainment, attire, etc. This is a major sports / leisure industry that communities like Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Pinehurst, to name a few, have cashed in on in recent years.
Just as a point of interest... Myrtle Beach claims to have over a hundred golf courses available to visitors. Hilton Head boasts 25 “championship” quality courses, and more for the less discriminating. Pinehurst, North Carolina, long know for its good golfing, has only a paltry 29 golf courses. But they are very nice ones with lots of amenities.
These kinds of world class facilities also tend to spin off some pretty impressive real estate ventures for upscale housing for knowledgeable investors or well connected insiders.
As wonderful as this may seem, Prince Edward County is not currently known as a major golfing destination in the known “world of golf.” It would seem that local Prince Edward County officials aspire to change that perception.
However, while the potential for profits may exist, there are some very real risks for those who put up the money to undertake these multi-million dollar developments.
So years back the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors set out on a mission and put into place the legal creation of the Poplar Hill Community Development Authority... otherwise known as the Poplar Hill CDA.
Under the auspices of the County Board of Supervisors the Poplar Hill CDA was created to develop a golf course and other support facilities, presumably to serve the public interest by stimulating local economic development. According to official records, the financial risks were to be born by "institutional investors" including large mutual funds, banks, insurance companies, etc. and not the taxpayers.
No risk to the taxpayers!
So far so good...
Except for one thing…
As reported in The Farmville Herald on July 12th, less than 30 days after the June 14th “Grand Opening” of this beautiful golf course, the Poplar Hill Community Development Authority was facing … gasp… foreclosure on key assets!
Part III: Opps... A do over please?
Foreclosure… such a nasty word…
The foreclosure notice established July 28th, for the public sale of approximately 120 acres of land owned by the Poplar Hill CDA.
The real estate involved in the foreclosure included the land that was previously planned for development as a inn /hotel and conference center and so called “snaking section” that could have become an additional nine holes of golf.
The local newspaper, The Farmville Herald, has reported that the anticipated foreclosure “…sale would have no direct impact on the golf course or a planned residential area…” The Herald also stated in their headlines that the foreclosure “could impact the inn, conference center site, not new golf course.”
Could impact the inn… conference center… but not the golf course?
Let us be charitable…
Seriously... at the very best... this editorial phraseology is not just questionable... it is down right ominous...a feeble attempt to put an optimistic face on a seriously troubling situation.
Of course the foreclosure on a significant real estate asset of the Poplar Hill CDA, that being the site reserved for the inn / hotel site and conference center would indeed impact the golf course! And not in a good way!
The whole idea for creating the Poplar Hill CDA in the first place was to generally benefit the economy of the area. Now critical elements of the "centerpiece" public facilities are in jeopardy.
Golf courses do not exist in a vacuum. They must be part of an overall community including lodging, restaurants, and a whole host of other services and amenities... the whole hospitality industry...
Golf courses need lots of paying golfers with cash to spend in support of the investments made, operations,routine maintenance, etc.
There may be a problem here!!!
Local observers report basic construction work on the development is still incomplete and relatively few golfers are showing up… at least… maybe not enough to pay the bills for a multi-million dollar development, including what has been publicly reported to be an $8.8 million dollar taxpayer backed U.S. Government loan guarantee.
This taxpayer backed loan guarantee is curious considering that the Poplar Hill CDA was originally portrayed as putting no tax dollars at risk.
This U.S. government loan guarantee, through Rural Development, is reported in The Farmville Herald to be due to the favorable political intervention of Congressman Virgil Goode, overriding concerns of Rural Development officials who were reported to have not been so enthusiatic about the risks and economics of the project. Considering that Rural Development's mission is to support essential public facilities and services, there may have been some other legitimate questions concerning the appropriatness of publicly financing a golf course to support speculative real estate development.
What few jobs there might have been for local workers are now in question for the foreseeable future. Without an inn / hotel and conference center, there will be no conferences, no tournaments, no masses of well healed golfers and tourists.
Obviously, this would not be an appropriate subject for the Iconoclast, or a public concern were it not for the considerable public resources that have been put at risk by public officials on the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors (and in Washington) on the faith that all will eventually work out satisfactorily.
So far things have not worked out so well for the public interests. Maybe the private investors are safe and out of harms way but the public interests are in jeopardy.
Given the recent foreclosure on a critical land asset, it would seem reasonable that the responsible local officials might have some explaining to do.
Part IV: Who has the answers?
Who is responsible?
The answer to the question… “Who is responsible?”… is literally a cavalcade of the “ who’s who” of the most important citizens of the area…
The public record is fairly clear…
When the idea of thePoplar Hill Community Development Authority (CDA)was first initiated, it was led by a number of influential citizens and representatives from prominent local institutions. Public records indicate favorable recommendations for the CDA from representatives from Longwood University, Hampton Sydney College, the local Chamber of Commerce, individual local business persons and investors. Some of these supporters appear to have had real estate or financial interests in common with the Poplar Hill CDA.
Then Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, one gentleman by the name of Hunter Watson, was known to be an “avid golfer” who coincidentally had certain financial /real estate interests that directly related to the creation of the Poplar Hill CDA.
A Declaration and Disclosure Statement was rerecorded in the June 8, 1999 Board minutes stating Chairman Watson's personal financial interests in Poplar Hill Associates, LLC as an investor, and declaring that he would not participate in the discussions or votes concerning the Poplar Hill CDA.
Notwithstanding this official declaration (June 8, 1999), Board minutes of July 13, 1999 record that then Chairman Watson not only recommended appointments to the Poplar Hill CDA board of directors, but also voted for the appointments he recommended. This was a controversial vote with three dissenting votes. These actions did raise questions about the potential of "conflicts of interest", but nothing ever came of it so far as public was concerned.
Sources close to the situation have provided news reports confirming that Mr. Watson resigned, mid-term, effective January 1, 2003, as Supervisor and Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Chairman Watson’s resignation occurred only after Poplar Hill CDA was created by the Board of Supervisors and only after he had taken part in making key appointments to the Poplar Hill CDA board to oversee the planned developments... developments related to real estate holdings that he had interests in.
One of Chairman Watson’s choices, confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, to the CDA board of directors was Supervisor and Vice Chairman Howard Simpson… the same person who is still Supervisor and Vice Chairman of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. He was appointed to represent the interests of the citizens of Prince Edward County on the Poplar Hill CDA in 1999 and has remained in that position to this day.
Vice Chairman Simpson is well known as being a "regular fixture" in the Courthouse, frequently in the offices of the County Administrator, but normally a man of few public words. Although he has been the official representative of the Board on the Poplar Hill CDA since 1999, he has rarely reported on the subject since his appointment to the Poplar Hill CDA in 1999.
Observers have asked what Vice Chairman Simpson has been doing all those hours that he has been hanging out out in the County Administrators office in recent years.
In early 2004 (Feburary 10, 2004), the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisor’s minutes report that the Poplar Hill Community Development Authority “is comprised of approximately 1,063 acres of which Hampden Sydney Poplar Hill LLC owns approximately 192 acres,: Poplar Hill Associates, LLC owns approximately 195 acres; and Poplar Hill Development Group, LLC owns approximately 238 acres. The remaining 435 acres are owned by the Poplar Hill Community Development Authority.”
This quote from the official records is confusing as the CDA is a publicly created organization and the LLCs are private for-profit organizations. However, the LLCs seem to be lumped all together as part of the CDA initiative. Related yes. The same thing no.
Remember, former Chairman Watson declared a personal financial interest in the Poplar Hill Associates, LLC.
The one obvious question is how the Poplar Hill CDA can go from celebration to financial crisis in less than 30 days?
It is inconceivable that the Poplar Hill CDA board members could not have been aware of the impending financial crisis on the day of the "Grand Opening". In fact, CDA attorney Harlan Horton has indicated to the local press that the CDA attempted to negotiate a "payout on the note" as far back as last October... almost a year ago. Why was this not publicly reported by responsible County officials earlier?
Also, there are questions concerning how anyone can logically claim that the forclosure of the 120 acre site which was to be the location of critical support facilities (inn / hotel and conference center) would have no impact on the golf course or planned residential area. Such claims defy common sense.
Most recently, on September 12, Prince Edward Board Supervisor Lacy Ward submitted a formal request to the Board to require that Vice Chairman Howard Simpson, the Board's long-time member of the Poplar Hill CDA, give a status report on the situation with the Poplar Hill CDA. This request asked that Vice Chairman Simpson specifically give "an in depth status report on the CDA operations" and " pay particular attention to the forclosure action and it's impact on the overall CDA plan, the overall financial status of the CDA to include loan balances, income for operation of the golf course, etc."
Sources who were present at the Board meeting reported that Vice Chairman Simpson, the Board's long time appointment to the CDA board reacted to the request with total silence!
In fact, the whole issue was met with silence by the entire Board. Chairman William "Buckie" Fore showed little reaction and moved on to the next item on the agenda after no discussion.
Readers of the Iconoclast may remember Chairman "Buckie" Fore, as the Board's Chairman since former Chairman Watson resigned. Local observers have suggested that Fore may have been a "favorite" (read "hand picked" ) by the former Chairman Hunter Watson to succeed him as Chairman. Furthermore, Chairman Fore is known to have a long time employee / employer relationship with the local newspaper, The Farmville Herald. (You may conclude from this fact whatever you wish.)
Contrary to earlier public representations, it is clear that public tax dollars have been put at risk to finance the developments of the Poplar Hill CDA. Other interests related to the golf course but privately owned included the Hampden Sydeny Poplar Hill LLC, Poplar Hill Associates LLC, and Poplar Hill Development Group LLC appear to be deriving advantage from the public initiative and risk through the Poplar Hill CDA.
Other significant investments of public funds have been in the past and may still be under consideration to support the Poplar Hill CDA and the various identified for-profit private entities (the LLCs). This may include grants from the Tobacco Commission and the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT is presently considering a major road project directly serving the project (U.S. Route 15). Also,former Chairman of the Poplar Hill CDA, Scott M. Harwood, was identified in a 2005 request to the Virginia Tobacco Commission for a $1.7 million special projects grant for activities specifically supporting the Poplar Hill Inn and Conference Center (the site for which has been recently forclosed on by the bank).
Mr. Harwood has since resigned from the Poplar Hill CDA and now serves on the board of directors for the Virginia Tobacco Commission.
Given the recent public revelation of the bank forclosure on significant real estate holdings of the Poplar Hill CDA and the possibility that OTHER public funds may still be under consideration for investment in the project, it is indeed necessary for responsible public officials to start answering questions.
For starters, why was the public blindsided? Why are public funds being used to support this speculative real estate venture? Are public funds being put at risk so that private for-profit entities may reap the profits? Who are the real beneficiaries of this project?
While non-committal during the September 12th Board meeting Chairman Fore and Vice Chairman Simpson owe it to the public to start providing some long overdue answers to these serious questions.
Presumably, the next shoe will drop in October.
Will the public get the long overdue answers?
This will be one to watch... to be sure!
Finally… as we know… the wheels of Prince Edward County Government... and its off-spring... the Poplar Hill CDA... could not have moved without the bureaucrats who work behind the scenes to make things happen. One such individual pictured (above) recently out on the fairway of the new golf course is none other than Prince Edward County Administrator Mildred B. Hampton… perhaps an avid golfer on vacation… perhaps something else...
You be the judge.
NOTE: Thanks to our contributors. As always, the Iconoclast appreciates the local tips on developing stories. Please send your confidential tips to