(Editor's Note: This is the first of three parts in a series on Horse Creek Golf Course in Dora.)
DORA - Dora Mayor Randy Stephens, sitting in a rocker on the dining area of the balcony of the Horse Creek Golf Course clubhouse, suddenly interrupted himself during the morning interview as he looked out over the 18th hole.
"That's a good shot somebody made up there. They laid that one up by the stick," Stephens said.
Stephens was entertained watching the occasional play, but he is just as entertained enjoying the growth now being experienced by the 18-hole, Par 72 municipal course, which has become the city's crown jewel in a generation. In fact, Stephens calls the course "a hidden gem."
Without the benefit of having a Walmart, Dora has a golf course that attracts tourism dollars for restaurants, gasoline pumps and other retail from people coming to the city to play.
Moreover, he stresses repeatedly that no taxpayer money has been used to fund the golf course for many years, with a separate bank account set up. It is a self-sufficient entity, funded entirely by the proceeds generated by golfers. Even the golf carts and the clubhouse is being paid this way.
This was a point that impressed golf fan Kenneth Boswell, the director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, when Stephens showed off the club house to him on Friday during an official visit Boswell made to the nearby nature trail. And it is a point Stephens is proud of.
When he ran for mayor in 2016, "people thought we were taking taxpayer revenue and investing it in the golf course," Stephens said. "Not a single penny, not one cent of taxpayer revenue goes into this golf course. That's the beauty of it. People are coming from other places to spend money with us. We're drawing money from other areas and we're not putting a penny into it ...
"Plus, it makes a profit we are able to use for the benefit of the city," Stephens said. "We've use it for road projects. We've used some of it to pay for equipment. We gave all the employees a one-time pay raise (at Christmas). It is doing what we anticipated it would do."
The annual average gross revenue of the course in its first 12 years, before Horse Creek Manager Don Cummings came on board, was $667,000. "In the last eight years, it has averaged $1 million a year," Cummings said. "Last year we did $1,250,000, and that was a big record. It was always in the high-eights, mid-900,000's a year the last eight years."
However, Stephens said he has tried to habitually put the revenue back into the course over the years.
Cummings said the course has daily fees and annual passes, with the course's first ever fee increase happening last year, primarily due to the overwhelming use of debit and credit cards that the business has to pay fees - usually about $2 for every transaction - for to the banks.
"We encourage, if you don't mind, to use debit. It is 1 percent, where a credit card is 2.7 percent of the purchase," he said. Stephens said there has been few complaints, as Horse Creek is so affordable compared to out-of-county courses.
As the area comes out of COVID-19 quarantines and winter, golfers have been flocking to Horse Creek's public greens, setting records so far for three months in a row.
"We had 3,069 rounds of golf played in April. Total revenue for the month of April was $130,403," Stephens said during the May 13 Dora City Council meeting. "We've had three record months and we don't anticipate any slow down between now and the end of the summer."
Stephens said last month May is typically the course's best admissions, although Cummings noted May 2020 was such a record month due to the pandemic that it would be hard to repeat. "We're not far behind it right now, but it will still be hard to catch it," Cummings said as the month was still drawing to a close.
Coronavirus spacing issues caused more golf carts to be used and charged during the pandemic, to the point golf carts purchase in 2016 had to be replaced after 220,000 rounds of golf. The new fleet of 72 Club Car carts, will cost $292,633 after a trade-in, was agreed to on May 13 and are expected to arrive in three months. On arrival, the city council will decide on a cash payment or a loan.
For several years, the facility has been setting records. In 2017, a course record was set for the number of rounds played in a month.
“For the months of January and February 2017, we set a record for number of rounds played in that month since the golf course first opened,” Stephens said in 2017.
The Eagle reported then, "In January, 1,666 rounds of golf were played at the 18-hole municipal course, with the closest to that record being January 2015 at 1,189 rounds played. February saw 1,851 rounds played, beating February 2016’s record of 1,544 rounds. In addition to this growth for the year to date, Stephens said that the average rounds of golf played per year have increased in recent years as well."
Stephens said then that from 2000 to 2012, the course averaged 18,908 rounds of golf each year. For 2013, 2014 and 2015, the average rounds of golf increased to 24,863.
The mayor said the facility still expects to lose money seasonally, such as in winter months. "If we break even in those months, that's actually a profit," he said. "Some years we go year round without losing any money."
Cummings, 65, who was over the now-defunct River Bend and Union Chapel courses before coming to Horse Creek, noted Musgrove Country Club as the only other course still open in the county. Cummings came to Dora on April 1, 2013, after River Bend closed.
Stephens and Cummings say that today only a tiny fraction of the people who play at the course are from Dora; Cummings said maybe a third could be from the county as a whole. The rest are from outside the county. While many have always come from Jefferson County, now many are coming from other surrounding counties, such as Fayette, Shelby and Cullman, and even surrounding Southern states for a couple of days. Stephens credits the attendance records to the fact that many can now travel by U.S. Interstate 22 to travel to the area.
"I-22 made it where you could leave our parking lot and be in downtown Birmingham, go through three red lights - and all three are in Sumiton - and you're done. You can be in downtown Birmingham in 25 minutes," he said.
Cummings went after the Walker County golfers, as he dealt with them over the years. Mostly, the effort has been word of mouth, outside of a drone footage two years ago of the course that has been shared online - and which he said has been successful in recruiting customers.
Plus Stephens says the value at the course is great. "It's a good course for the price," he said.
Cummings said the course has had to back off on tournaments because it conflicted with the growing demand for tee times on a regular basis. Stephens said tournaments are still held as a community service and they will try to accommodate them.