The Kane County Water Conservancy District has initiated plans to develop a destination golf course in Kanab, Utah, population 5,000, and authorized payment to Bandon Dunes designer David McLay Kidd for preliminary plans. The $5 million project would be built in a 210-acre location near the Arizona state line and near other southern Utah attractions, including Bryce Canyon and Zion.
The Kane County (Utah) Water Conservancy District, now run by Mike Noel, a retired lawmaker from that part of the state, has initiated plans to develop a destination golf course in Kanab, Utah and has already dedicated funds to purchase land from a prominent local family and hire a top golf course designer, The Salt Lake City(Utah) Tribune reported.
At the District’s October meeting, The Tribune reported, Board members voted to put down $10,000 to hold a six-month option to buy 74 private acres and hire renowned architect David McLay Kidd, who designed the original course at Bandon Dunes, to begin preliminary design work for $75,000.
The site is on the Arizona state line south of the District’s Jackson Reservoir within Kanab’s city limits, The Tribune reported. The District calculates the entire project would cost $5 million to build and would cover 210 acres, including a state trust parcel that the District would lease and an old gravel quarry on federal land that Noel hopes to acquire for free through the Recreation and Public Purposes Act.
The 74 private acres, which appraised for $1.26 million, is owned by the Chamberlain family, whose ranching roots in Kanab date to pioneer times, The Tribune reported. Members of the family sit on the Kanab City Council, Kane County Commission and the Water District Board, but District Board member McKay Chamberlain recused himself from votes on the land acquisition.
While District officials see the project as a wonderful boon to Kanab, others wonder if the District is wandering far outside its water-development mission and expertise to involve taxpayers and district ratepayers in a risky investment scheme, The Tribune reported.
Critics contend there is little chance the city of 5,000 could profitably support an 18-hole golf course unless it is marketed to tourists willing to pay a premium to play it. But that is pretty much what Noel has in mind, The Tribune reported.
There is no precedent for a Utah water district to develop or operate a golf course, The Tribune reported, but Noel has sold the idea to the Kane District’s Board by framing recreation as a part the district’s mandate, arguing a golf course would spur economic development.
A world-class course would be “a beautiful addition to a community” that would be open to non-golfers as well, Noel told the District Board at its November meeting, The Tribune reported.
“With 4 million tourists coming through this area, there’s a lot of golfers that want to just play this course and they’ll come to play this course and they’ll fly here to play this course and they’ll stay an extra night to play this course,” he said. “We’ve got a town that can provide them with the accommodations. We’ve got the other things that the family can do, the hiking and the tourism. They can go to Bryce Canyon, Zion, Cedar Breaks, all of those areas. It’s just an ideal location for that type of amenity.”
Kanab resident Sky Chaney, however, finds the proposal foolhardy and dubious, The Tribune reported.
“This is just the beginning of the money drain,” said Chaney, who is President of the Taxpayer Association of Kane County. “Why not spend this money to lower our increasing water rates? Are the people of Kane County willing to risk millions of public dollars based on a Golf magazine article? How will we pay off the massive unpaid debt if the project fails to produce enough income?”
Noel dismissed such criticism, The Tribune reported.
“We’ve done our homework on this,” he told his Board. “We’ve worked on this for many, many years. There’s a certain number of naysayers in the community, the same names that show up and don’t want any progress and are ready to challenge anything we do about water and recreation.”
At the October meeting, The Tribune reported, some Board members voiced concerns about the lack of a business plan before committing money to buy the land. In response, Noel incorrectly told them that providing recreation is an explicit part of the district’s mission.
“I thought people were supportive of this. We have to make a stand. We can get private property. [Or] we can sit on our duff and not get it done,” Noel said then. “One of our mandates is recreation and water is recreation. It is part of our charter to produce recreation, and I don’t think we spend a lot on developing recreation. I don’t have any problem selling this to the public and be able to justify it.”
Contrary to Noel’s claim, The Tribune reported, the water district’s establishing document, a four-page legal brief filed in 6th District Court, makes no reference to recreation. When The Tribune sought clarification from a district official, she sent the District’s 2017 water management plan, which does say the District was organized for “the purpose of conserving and developing water for multiple uses,” including recreation. But nowhere does it indicate providing recreation is part of the District’s mission.
The state law that enables the formation of water districts also does not say anything about recreation, The Tribune reported. It does contain an open-ended provision to “promote the comfort, safety, and welfare of the people of the state.”
Noel, who did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment, hopes to see participation from other local governmental entities, such as city and the county. And his proposed funding scheme would require buy-in from them. While funding has yet to be determined, Noel suggested the best option is to obtain a low-interest $5 million loan from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund (CIB) and pay it back with revenue raised by Kane County’s sales tax levied on tourist lodging.
Kanab had a golf course that went belly up a few years after the city sold it at a loss, Chaney noted. The nine-hole Coral Cliffs course now sits unused, filling with weeds, The Tribune reported.
At the November meeting, Board member Ben Clarkson, a real estate agent who once ran the Coral Cliffs course, said the proposed course will occupy land with much more favorable soils than the defunct one, The Tribune reported. Kanab’s 184-day growing season stretches from April to October, and Clarkson estimated golfers can play 300 days a year in Kanab.
“The income generation,” he said, “will easily justify the payments and the loans for TRT [transient room tax] moneys and those things to show the benefit of the economy that this would add.”
Critics also see the course as a way for the water district to bolster its case that Kane County needs the water that could someday be passing through in a costly pipeline proposed across southern Utah to deliver water from Lake Powell to St. George, The Tribune reported.
Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council was baffled that the water district can claim it is running short of locally available water, yet has no trouble irrigating a high-end golf course in the desert, The Tribune reported.
“The Kane water district has been working to develop as much water as possible to make way for the Lake Powell pipeline,” Frankel said. “They know from the documents on the pipeline there is no need for the water, so their strategy is to change that with projects like the proposed golf course. You can hear it in the Board meetings; the course is meant to encourage demand.”
Because it failed to document a need for the water, the Kane district was recently pressured to pull out of the Lake Powell pipeline’s environmental review, The Tribune reported. But Noel has made it clear that his district still intends to draw up to 4,000 acre-feet of water from the pipeline some day.
The 200 to 300 acre-feet needed to water the proposed course would not tap culinary supplies, but would come from shares in a local irrigation company, The Tribune reported. Additionally, Noel told his Board that the links could eventually use treated wastewater from a plant that Noel is pitching to city officials.
“That secondary water is perfect use for a golf course,” he said. “That can be cleaned up to golf course standards very easily.”
The golf course has the support of Kanab Mayor Robert Houston and county officials, Noel said. The mayor did not return a phone message, The Tribune reported, nor did Camille Johnson Taylor who heads the Kane County Travel Council.
The Kabab proposal comes as there has been a marked uptick in golf participation since the arrival of the pandemic, according to industry observers, The Tribune reported.
“It’s been a silver lining for the golf industry,” said Jacob Miller, Executive Director of the Utah Golf Association. “Everyone in the state is running record numbers of rounds. We are going to see that into next year.”
Courses built in remote areas like Kanab need to be designed by renowned architects if they expect to attract golfers willing to travel, Miller added. David Kidd’s name is on courses such as Oregon’s Bandon Dunes and eastern Washington’s Gamble Sands, which are thriving despite locations far from population centers. Kidd is also spearheading the ongoing $7 million renovation of Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club in St. George.
“There is always room for another great golf course in Utah,” Miller said. “There is nothing else in that part of the state.”
There hasn’t been much golf course construction in southern Utah lately outside of Copper Rock, which opened in Hurricane in March of 2020, The Tribune noted. Castle Rock and Lake Powell National in Page, Ariz., are the two closest 18-hole courses to Kanab, located 63 and 74 miles away, respectively.