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Make River Oaks viable or else
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What is a community to do when one of its chief recreational venues hits hard times and the owner wants to sell off a visible chunk of the space for another use?

The owner of River Oaks Golf Course wants to sell off a chunk of the green space to build homes on and, understandably, a lot of people are already squawking before any formal development application has been submitted. Saying that his 18-hole course is failing to make money, Mike Phipps wants to downsize his operation and generate some cash by taking out of commission the top nine holes of the golf course nearest to Hatch Road and the driving range and bring in a developer to build homes.

It's no secret that golfing is an industry that has hit hard times. In Tucson, Ariz., the city manages five golf courses but they are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the last 10 years, the number of rounds played have dipped by approximately 11 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation. The exception was in 2012 when there were 5.7 percent more rounds of golf played in the nation (with good weather and more playable days last year). But golf courses are not out of trouble.

Golfing has been in decline in the United States for years now. In this economy, golf is sacrificed for the cost savings. But cost isn't necessarily the greatest reason for the decline of golf. Most working Americans just can't seem to find the time.

Initially, Phipps submitted a very preliminary plan to the city that called for erasing the top nine and driving range for approximately 70 residential building lots but he was told that his plan would never fly. That's because his proposed development falls underneath the Modesto Airport landing approach zone and the density cannot exceed two residences per acre. Not only does the city of Ceres have everything to do with approving his plans, so does the Modesto Airport Land Use Commission. So Phipps went back to the drawing board to produce a preliminary map showing a housing development of two units per acre with lot sizes ranging from 8,000 square feet to 24,923 square feet. Phipps said that the development would allow for the building of "nice executive homes."

There's an exclusive group of residents living along Golf Links Road - living in 13 custom homes - who are going to fight Phipps. They enjoy the setting of the green space as it presently exists. Who wouldn't mind greens where the only noise is the muffled chatter and laughter of golfers and the sound of golf club's slicing through the open air?

This is not the first time in the history of the area that a recreational venue has hit hard times and the owner has abandoned operations. Remember Big Bear Park in Waterford with its swimming lagoon, water slides, miniature train, picnic grounds and RV camping? Insurance costs drove Rob Bearden to sell the park for the development of the gated River Pointe community by Kimball Hills and Grupe. Remember Oakwood Lake Resort waterslides near Manteca? In 2004 it was closed as the owners could not turn a profit due to high workers' compensation and health-care costs. You might also recall the various roller skating rinks in Modesto which also were forced to quit because of changing recreational habits.

At least one resident on Golf Links Road is critical of Phipps' handling of the course, saying it's been mismanaged and that he should sell out and let somebody else come in and run the course at a profit. He suggests that Phipps, who inherited the course from his father who built it in 1979, is not cut out for the job.

On the other hand, nobody can force Phipps to sell. Nor can Phipps be forced by the city -- or anyone for that matter -- to continue operating the golf course at a loss. The economy has greatly hurt the golf industry. And let's face it, Stanislaus County is not enjoying the greatest economic times.

Any way you slice it, there are no easy answers to this dilemma. Phipps' proposal is sure to end in disappointment for somebody. Flatly opposing Phipps is not the answer. The community needs to weigh in on this matter and, if possible, give Phipps a tangible set of solutions to keep the community asset economically viable.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at