Bandon land deal gains wide support

Is it possible that Bandon Dunes Golf Resort owner Mike Keiser can outdo himself?

Is it possible he can build a golf course that will surpass the world-famous ones he's already installed on the southern Oregon Coast?

Is it also possible that, if the course is completed, we will be able to play it for less than what it costs to play some courses in the Rogue Valley?

Yes, yes and yes, according to Bob Johnson, an Ashland realtor who long ago welcomed Keiser as a client and has had a hand in many of the greeting-card mogul's land acquisitions.

Keiser, through his corporation Bandon Biota, has proposed a land-and-cash swap with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department that would give him a 280-acre oceanside parcel and provide the space to build a 27-hole facility just south of Bandon.

The project has been in the works for years — the first proposal, nearly a one-to-one trade-off in value with the state — was made in 2010.

The offerings have changed dramatically since, and Keiser, uncertain that an accord could be reached, came very close to walking away from the opportunity. But it now appears the deal will go through.

At a public hearing in Bandon last week, there was strong support for the exchange, and the parks department has said it will recommend the state commission approve the deal at a meeting Sept. 25 in Condon.

If approved, the next step would be to submit applications to the Land Use Board of Appeals. Keiser's legal team has begun preliminary work on those documents, and in a best-case scenario, said Johnson, the process would take six months and ground could be broken next spring.

Of course, it's been a complicated matter throughout, and there likely will be backlash.

Bandon Biota is hopeful its applications will be so thorough as to cover any concerns raised by opponents such as Oregon Coast Alliance, Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition and National Coast Trails Association who believe the area should remain with the state and untouched.

In the exchange, Keiser would get a portion of the 878-acre Bandon State Natural Area, and he'd give up at least $300,000 for control of invasive and damaging gorse, two parcels of land totaling 208 acres adjacent to Bullards Beach State Park and the Coquille River and up to $2.95 million to purchase properties in Lincoln and Grant counties.

In May, Keiser estimated the chance of the exchange being accepted as only 50-50. His final offer, however, appears to have met, in the parks department's view, the "overwhelming public benefit" provision for which all such land exchanges must meet.

His offer has escalated to four times what he's getting in return.

"A lot of people would have been discouraged and gone away," said Johnson. "But Mike has been willing to, first of all, understand what 'overwhelming benefit' means, and secondly, offer a proposal to meet or exceed that standard no matter who the audience was, whether it's the state parks or a public audience."

So, what about the golf course?

It would be dubbed Bandon Links, and it would be three nine-hole layouts, all finishing at a central point. It would be walking only, like those at Bandon Dunes, and there would only be a clubhouse and a practice facility, no lodging.

The idea is to provide a low-cost option for Oregonians that would bring people to Bandon proper, create 40 to 50 jobs, present caddying opportunities for kids and thereby set them up for Evans Scholarship consideration, which provides full tuition to Oregon or Oregon State.

Keiser has consistently said the cost would be $40 to $50 per round for Oregonians and a meager $10 to $20 for Coos and Curry county residents. Juniors would play for free.

Moreover, the course would be designed by Gil Hanse, perhaps the hottest architect going. He was selected to build the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Johnson has walked the Bandon Links property three times with Keiser and Hanse, who has already done some rough routing outlines.

"They honestly believe that it will be received by the golf critics as better than anything at Bandon Dunes because of the topography," said Johnson. "It's very natural topography for links golf. They described it more like Ireland than Scotland. I don't know what that means because I haven't been to either place."

With boundaries nearly cemented in place with the latest proposal, Hanse will return next month to take another look, said Johnson.

In order to make the project work, enough land had to be available for 27 holes. While in-state players will get remarkable deals, others will be subjected to the same per-round fee structure in place: Currently in the busy season, it's $235 for resort guests and $280 for those not staying on the grounds.

"The revenue stream from the high-priced rates will be necessary," said Johnson, "to subsidize the caddie program, junior golf, Oregonian play "¦ That's a necessary element of it and that's why it has to be 27 holes. The model doesn't work with 18 holes."

Before Bandon Links was chosen as the name, it was referred to as Bandon Muni, a take-off of famed St. Andrews in Scotland. There, residents pay a minimal fee or work to maintain the course for the privilege to play.

Outsiders, meanwhile, pay a hefty price to walk the hallowed grounds.

"We've always referred to it as the St. Andrews model and the Scottish model," said Johnson.

Unlike Bandon Dunes, Bandon Links is expected to have a big economic impact.

Cost-conscious golfers from up and down the I-5 corridor would flock to Bandon Links, Johnson believes, rather than limiting their play to winter months when seasonal rates are more appealing.

Once in Bandon, they'd use the hotels, rental properties and restaurants.

"Bandon Dunes hasn't had nearly the economic impact on the city as we thought it would," said Johnson. "Players stay there and eat, drink, golf and sleep. They came here for the specific purpose of playing a lot of golf, and a lot of them never leave the resort."

Testament to that comes from Carla Smith, principal owner of Bandon Crossings, a very nice 18-hole course just south of Bandon. She and her husband, Rex, built it in 2007 with the idea of attracting players from Bandon Dunes who might want a low-cost alternative where riding carts are allowed.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who play (at Bandon Dunes) don't have a clue that we're there," Carla Smith told the Eugene Register-Guard in a story published in April. "And their rounds are already paid for, or they're budgeted ahead of time, and they don't care how much it costs."

Bandon Links would be across Highway 101 from Bandon Crossings.

In the Register-Guard story, Smith said she loved the idea of Bandon Links getting people off the resort and into the community. The prospect of the new course taking her customers away looms, also.

She said she wouldn't be negative and considers Keiser a man of vision.

"I don't know what the outcome will be if it's built," she said.

Johnson has a good relationship with the Smiths, he said. For three years, he's kept them informed of the maneuverings, a gesture he said they appreciated.

Johnson, who also has an office in Bandon, is an annual member at Bandon Crossings and played in a fundraising tournament there last weekend.

He said the Smiths are supportive of Keiser's project.

"Bandon Crossings should not be underestimated in this formula," said Johnson. "Cart rounds are played by the vast majority of golfers in this country. Not everybody can walk 18 holes and carry their bag. I think Bandon Crossings will be a crucial part of this process."

Johnson is confident Bandon Links will become a reality.

"There are a lot of moving parts to it," he said, "but it's very well-conceived. Just think, 10 years from now, people will look back on it and think it was extremely visionary, and it will just have such a positive effect on so many people's lives in so many ways, whether they're golfers or not."

Should it come to pass, Keiser will indeed have outdone himself.

Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com


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