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Winners abound in Keiser's pending land swap

What's that, a million dollars in your pocket?

How about we make a trade. You give me that $1 million, and I'll give you, say, $4.5 million.

What's that, your money is in a defunct currency and mostly useless?

No problem.

What's that, it has personal value because it was handed down from your great-grandfather?

Imagine how proud he'd be to know you turned something of little worth into something that will benefit you and yours for generations to come.

It's a deal? Thought so.

That's a simple view of the pending trade of land and cash between golf course mogul Mike Keiser and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

Keiser is giving up more than $4 million in property and cash to acquire 280 acres of gorse-choked land in the 878-acre Bandon State Natural Area.

It is very one-sided, to the state's benefit, because it has to satisfy a hastily crafted provision adopted when Keiser first went calling nearly five years ago.

In order for Keiser to take ownership so he can build a 27-hole golf complex that would be world class, yet dirt cheap for Oregonians to play, he had to make an offer that was of “overwhelming public benefit” before the state parks commission could agree on a deal.

Keiser's initial offer in 2010 was a straight, acre-for-acre swap and clearly didn't make the grade.

Now, there seems to be little question the offer on the table does. Here's what the state gets:

— 111 acres of oceanfront property;

— 97 acres of wetland property on the Coquille spit;

— $300,000 in cash to control gorse;

— $450,000 to go toward acquiring 11 acres at Whale Cove in Lincoln City;

— $2.5 million to purchase additional parkland.

— Access to move the Oregon Coast Trail off a county road.

In exchange, Keiser receives land that is inland about a half mile and that virtually no one visits. It was appraised at $1 million in 2014, a figure based on what the land would become, not what it is.

The deal, which the state parks commission approved in a 4-2 vote in April 2014, became a discussion topic following a story in The Oregonian. The Associated Press picked it up and the Mail Tribune ran it on May 25.

It fueled debate about the appropriateness of the state trading public land for private enterprise and raised conservation concerns about nesting area and sensitive plants. It also shed light on then-Governor John Kitzhaber's influence and raised a question of whether a campaign contribution from Keiser had anything to do with Kitzhaber's push. Further, it left some with the impression Keiser was getting prime beachfront land.

Ashland realtor Bob Johnson is Keiser's property specialist and was there on the ground floor as Keiser created Bandon Dunes Resort.

Ten years ago, he walked the parcel that Keiser's corporation, Bandon Biota LLC, is trying to acquire.

Primary resistance has come from the Oregon Coast Alliance.

“If this were a precious piece of parkland that had been managed and had some park values,” said Johnson, “I think the conservation argument against it would be valid. But if you go on the land, you'll see that this is not valuable conservation land. The impression being given is that it's precious Oregon coastline, and that's bull. It's just not.”

Nothing new in the process prompted the article.

The next step, which Johnson said this week would happen any day, is Keiser's people getting information to the parks department on how the land would be used so the parks can file a change-of-use application with the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM deeded the land to the state in 1968, stipulating that it must be available to the public for outdoor recreation.

The completion of the trade rests on BLM's approval and ensuing land-use approval by Coos County.

The timeliness of the article coincided more closely with Kitzhaber's fall from grace and ensuing resignation.

That point was made by Johnson, who discussed the story thoroughly with Keiser. They believe there were a couple misconceptions, said Johnson, but didn't consider the article as a whole unfair.

An issue was the intimation that a $25,000 donation by Keiser to Kitzhaber's reelection campaign influenced the deal. In the story, Keiser denied as much.

“We read it and felt like there was an insinuation of pay-to-play, something inappropriate and political,” said Johnson, “from the governor to the state parks. And I just felt like that was a little inaccurate and unfair.”

Keiser had been keeping Kitzhaber's aides in the loop for “three or four years,” said Johnson. The governor got involved and encouraged the commission to OK the deal only as the project bogged down, he added.

It was one of Kitzhaber's advisers who suggested the initial meeting with Keiser, said Johnson.

“The governor was very impressed with what Oregonians were getting,” said Johnson.

“He has been involved in a whole lot of economic development interests in the state, and he rightfully was supportive of this project. He'd have been foolish not to be.”

Indeed, in a meeting at the Mail Tribune a couple years ago, Kitzhaber stressed his desire to reinvigorate the south coast economy.

Keiser's track record is strong. Bandon Dunes is one of the largest employers in the region.

A New York Times story noted that before Bandon Dunes was built, the local airport had about three private jets visit a year. Now, aided by expansion of Southwest Oregon Regional Airport, it's about 7,500 a year.

They come for Bandon Dunes, but their impact on the local economy is negligible because most don't venture from the resort.

The proposed complex, dubbed Bandon Links at Chick Evans Park — after the famed amateur player for whom a caddie scholarship foundation is named — won't have lodging.

It's rates of about $20 for locals and about twice that for other Oregonians should attract droves of golfers who will use housing and restaurants in town.

Annual rounds when the 27 holes are up and running are expected to reach 60,000.

Juniors will play for free, and as many as 200 high school kids would be in a caddie program that would enable dozens to earn Evans scholarships.

The meager fees for state residents will be offset by standard resort fees for out-of-state visitors.

The model estimates $1 million a year will be raised for caddie scholarships and gorse control.

Kitzhaber wasn't the only one eager to see the project succeed.

Johnson, who had an office in Bandon until last fall, knows how the locals feel.

“There's a huge amount of support over here,” he said. “All the local and regional politicians are behind it because it's just a winner. There's no loser, including the state parks, but the big winners are Oregonians.”

Indeed, Bandon Mayor Mary Schamehorn, a lifelong resident, told Steve Duin of The Oregonian: "Mike Keiser has jumped through every hoop in the world to get this gorse-laden property. Which he will clear and turn into something priceless."

She added: "I get sick and tired of people blasting him. Mike Keiser hasn't damaged anything. Everything he has done has been beyond our wildest dreams."

Even the parks commission vote was closer to unanimous than it appears. The two dissenters went “nay” not because they found the trade abhorrent, but because a specific property wasn't named in the deal.

The parks department covets Beltz Farm — a 300-plus acre property north of Pacific City with ocean beaches, wetlands and forests — but it is not yet available. Rather than stall the negotiations over a dearth of available and suitable property, the $2.5 million for future acquisitions was agreed upon.

Of course, there is opposition, but Johnson said the Keiser camp remains optimistic the necessary approvals will come.

“We're optimistic we can get through those,” he said. “Mike wouldn't be continuing to pursue it if he wasn't optimistic that we'd be successful, that we'd get these approvals. We're certainly not going to entertain the idea of bailing.”

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