FISHERS — A little more than a year ago, hundreds of homeowners around Gray Eagle Golf Course fought off a church’s plans to build on the property.
Among the objections, residents feared that eliminating the driving range for the project would hasten the demise of the course.
Now, the whole operation’s poised to close down, with the owner blaming a falloff in business that mirrors the sport’s decline nationally.
Gray Eagle owner RN Thompson plans to shutter the 18-hole course, driving range, putting greens and simulators in 2019 — and that’s giving some homeowners along the course a mild case of the yips.
“We are very sad and upset; that’s why we moved here,” said Tobi Weinstein, who has lived right next to the first green for three years. “Everybody would like it to stay a golf course.”
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Gray Eagle, at the southeast corner of Brooks School Road and 126th Street, is the second Hamilton County course Thompson is selling. In January, the Westfield City Council approved plans to build 340 homes at the Wood Wind course after Thompson sold that golf operation.
Developer Mark Thompson said a trend of decreased or stagnant golf participation over eight years has sliced revenues at courses and made them too risky to keep open.
“The older generation is dying andthe younger generation is not taking their place,” Thompson said. “They’ve got other interests.”
A 2016 report by the We Are Golf, a golf course industry group, found that 737 courses closed nationwide the previous five years. The National Golf Foundation reported that the number of people who played a round of golf in the country declined from 25.7 million in 2015 to 23.8 million in 2016 but has remained steady since.
At the same time, participation at alternative, lower cost golf venues – such as Topgolf and miniature golf sites – has increased 7 percent.
The state has about 430 public, private and municipal courses, which generate $1.7 billion a year in direct, indirect and induced revenue and support 21,000 jobs, according to We Are Golf.
Thompson and the homeowners said the chances of selling the course to someone who will keep it a golf range are slim. The residents rejected an offer to raise their homeowner fees to buy it themselves, and the city doesn’t want to make it a municipal golf course.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Thompson said. “For someone to sink $4, 5, 6, 7 million and keep it a golf course, it is not going to work. It doesn’t have value.”
Joe Pressner, 71,who lives near the driving range but not on the course, said what people living on the links fear most is development encroaching on their property or an increase in traffic.
“People love their open views, and there’s not a lot of noise,” said Pressner,
Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness said, ideally, the land would remain a golf course under new ownership but that the city would let the free market determine its future.
“Golf is the only permitted use right now under our zoning code,” Fadness said. “Any other use would need council approval. We have no interest in developing the land.”
Much of Gray Eagle cannot be developed because it lies in the Mud Creek flood plain, which would limit the breadth of any commercial or housing development, said Richard Block, a City Council member who owns a real estate firm.
“A lot of people want to see it stay as a golf course, but if it is developed, a good amount of natural area or trail would have to be woven in,” Block said.
In a memo sent to residents Aug. 23, Gray Eagle HOA president Chris de Monclin told residents of the six subdivisions in the association that the worst result would be Thompson Development can’t sell the land at all. Six months after closing, he said, the course would become “a wasteland” that would “drag on the values of our homes.”
In an interview, de Monclin said residents pay about $20,000 more for homes on the course. “There is a premium. You are paying for that greenspace and the quiet.”
De Monclin said about a third of the 661 homes in the HOA are on the course and some of the greens creep to within yards of properties. He said homeowners rejected raising fees $300 per year because there was no guarantee the course would last longer than a few years or that its management would be able to increase revenue.
But what should be done with the property has been a hot topic for months.
At a May HOA meeting, Andy Card, who developed an 88,000-square-foot sports complex at Grand Park in Westfield, told residents he could build a sports complex at the corner of 126th Street and Brooks School Road, where the golf clubhouse is. The facility would have tennis, basketball and pickleball courts and a restaurant.
Other possibilities include developing some of the land for housing and using the rest as a nature area. The city said it would favor senior housing there.
Thompson said he is talking with possible buyers about commercial properties – possibly a medical building — on 40 acres at 126th and Brooks School, with an unknown amount of housing spread along the 6,700-yard-long course.
Either way, he said, much of the flood plain would be set aside and donated to the city for “greenspace or trails.”
“We plan to work with the city and the HOA on this,” he said. “The residents made clear they don’t want something like a gas station. And it’s not going to be a Walmart.”
When residents shot down plans last year for the church, called iTown Church, a big concern was traffic congestion. The residents also thought tearing down the driving range would lead to a drop in golfers.
Thompson contends the church could have saved the golf course because the plan included a banquet hall where the clubhouse is now.
“The revenues from that would have more than off-set driving range fees and allowed us to put it into the course,” Thompson said.
But de Monclin said the residents never received a guarantee from Thompson that the dollars would go to golf.
Pressner, who lives near the driving range, said he sensed the course was closing eventually and he supported the church because of it.
“The way things have been going there and with golf you had to wonder if the course was going to last,” he said. “And you always run the risk of ending up something worse than a church.”
Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at (317) 444-6418. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.
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