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Bandon project clears big hurdle

Bob Johnson hopes some day to put a tee in the ground and play Bandon Links, the next project planned by Bandon Dunes Golf Resort owner Mike Keiser.

That possibility got a major boost last week, when the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Commission approved a land-and-cash swap with Keiser's corporation, Bandon Biota.

Johnson is an Ashland realtor who has Keiser as a client and has been involved with Bandon Dunes since its inception.

The deal, which was first proposed in 2010, would transfer 280 acres of the Bandon State Natural Area to Keiser for construction of at least a 27-hole facility just south of town.

In exchange, the state park system would receive 208 acres, $300,000 in cash to control gorse, $450,000 to help acquire 11 acres in Lincoln County and $2.5 million for the state's property acquisition fund.

Bandon Biota representatives had hoped to get final approval last fall, said Johnson, but too many questions lingered.

The vote was tabled a couple of times until a meeting last week in Bend, where it passed, 4-2.

"It's a really good and necessary first step before anything else can happen," said Johnson. "It's a great first step out of about five."

The deal was a complex one, he said, perhaps as complicated as the commission has handled. He said it also was the first time the park system employed the provision that any proposal affecting state park land must be of "overwhelming" benefit to the public.

The value of the deal is about 4-to-1 in favor of the state.

There are still hurdles to clear, notably a restriction implemented by the Bureau of Land Management when it sold the land to the state in the 1960s. It requires that the property remain open to the public for outdoor recreation.

The exchange can't take place until the restriction is lifted or resolved in some other way.

Bandon Biota has been in contact with BLM officials in Portland.

"We're dealing with a whole new agency now and their own rules and regulations," said Johnson. "We think we know what those are. We've done our research."

In a story in the Coos Bay World, Keiser said an attorney of his talked with BLM officials, and Keiser said "they seem very reasonable."

Bandon Biota also has the support of Gov. John Kitzhaber, noted Johnson. Kitzhaber wrote a letter to the commission last fall saying he favored the swap.

"The governor's input with the state parks was critical," said Johnson, "and should get a lot of credit for moving it forward. Without that, we're probably languishing in limbo, and Mike probably would have lost his patience and moved on."

If all goes well with the BLM and, subsequently, the planning process with Coos County, Johnson guessed construction could begin in 11/2 years. But there are opponents who will continue to fight the transaction, he said, and it could be three years before things get started in earnest.

"Mike is really excited and has bent over backwards to make the deal happen," said Johnson. "He's really committed to seeing it through. I'm just looking forward to teeing off on the son of a gun, if we all live that long."

Bandon Dunes is north of Bandon and has five courses, including a 13-hole, par-3 spread.

Bandon Links, at the opposite end of town, would present an extremely low-cost alternative to residents of Coos and Curry counties ($10 to $20) and bargain rates ($40 to $50) to other in-state players. Out-of-state guests would pay the same greens fees as players at the other Bandon Dunes courses — during peak times, $235 for resort guests and $295 for those not staying on the grounds.

The concept is similar to famed St. Andrews in Scotland, where residents pay a minimal fee or work to maintain the course for the privilege of playing. Outsiders are charged a hefty price.

It's uncertain what Bandon Links will evolve into. The plan now is for three, nine-hole courses that would have a central start and finish area.

There wouldn't be any lodging, so guests would use nearby hotels, rental properties and restaurants, providing an economic spike that hasn't materialized as a result of Bandon Dunes.

The facility could turn into two 18-hole courses. The 280 acres in the swap is about 40 more than was originally planned for, said Johnson, but until gorse and other vegetation is cleared, presenting a better picture for routing, nothing is set in stone.

"So much of this has to evolve on the ground," he said. "We have a pretty strong impression of what we think it'll look like, but that changes some."

Gil Hanse will design the courses. His current project is building the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

A major component of Bandon Links will be caddie training and educational options for high school and junior players, said Johnson, adding that there could be a dormitory type set-up. There could be as many as 30 Evans Scholarships in the offing, he said.

"There's huge potential for it from an educational standpoint," said Johnson.

The golf itself figures to be top of the line.

Johnson said Keiser and Hanse believe the Bandon Links courses "will be as good, and probably better, than any at Bandon Dunes. Mike is really excited about the terrain for golf. He says it's Ireland."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com