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Closing Cedar Hill restaurant a 'mistake,' admit Saanich councillors

On Tuesday, more than 200 people attended a budget meeting at Colquitz middle school to have a say on the Cedar Hill golf course.
More than 200 people showed up for a budget meeting at Colquitz middle school Tuesday where discussion surrounded the $820

The Cedar Hill Golf Course’s troublesome deficit has been a dark cloud for almost a decade.

As early as 2002, the course’s revenues started to decline. Over the years it was hoped changes to green fees and the installation of a new $2-million irrigation system would attract more people to the club.  That didn’t happen.

In 2009 Saanich commissioned a $40,000 report to determine how to reverse the golf course’s fortunes.

“There’s so many assumptions and unknowns associated with whether the recommendations (from the report) are going to work or not,” said Doug Henderson, director of parks and recreation. “What (the report) said was ‘based on our background knowledge of golf, what we found at Cedar Hill, and what we think we know about the golf industry, here are some of the things we think will work.’”

Of the 64 recommendations that came in that report, Henderson says the majority were implemented. And despite Saanich’s optimism in 2010 that the changes would collectively help make the course financially sustainable, the course is still bleeding money.

“I think that the discussion around the golf and restaurant operations should’ve been laid out on the table at that point, and should’ve been a full public process,” said Coun. Dean Murdock.

He, along with councillors Vicki Sanders, Judy Brownoff and Vic Derman, admit that council made a “mistake” last month when they voted to close the restaurant on Feb. 18 without first going to the public.

“There was a mistake made, and we need to step back and see how we can deal with it,” Brownoff said. “What’s happened is we conducted all this stuff in-camera and it makes the community feel like we haven’t been transparent.”

Council first began discussing the closure of the restaurant in December, a few weeks after the municipal election.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Did you know about this issue before the election?’ Yes, I knew there were some problems, but I didn’t know that the sky had fallen and we needed to do some drastic measures,” Brownoff said.

Mayor Frank Leonard says keeping the whole thing in-camera was necessary because you can’t separate discussion on the closure from discussion on related employment issues.

“When management comes to council about discussing (employee’s) specific jobs … that’s not a public discussion,” the mayor said. “Ultimately it was a unanimous decision. I’m not going to give you play-by-play of an in-camera meeting.”

Coun. Vic Derman disagrees, saying that the employment aspect and the financial viability aspect could've been separated.

"I think that material could've been brought to council that didn't involve directly the issue of personnel, simply the future of the restaurant and future of the course, and community consultation could've been started much earlier," he said. "The decision to close down the restaurant, I'm not sure it's in-camera item. What happens to personnel clearly is. I think they can be seen as independent issues."

Coun. Susan Brice said council didn’t make an uninformed decision – it was simply a business decision.

“The decision to close the restaurant wasn’t because we didn’t know it was enjoyed and loved and needed. It was for financial reasons, and those financial reasons remain,” she said. “I fully understood that there would be disappointment – every member of council did.”

That disappointment came to a head on Tuesday, as more than 200 people attended a budget meeting at Colquitz middle school. It was the first of two meetings to be held to gather input on the golf course – the second is set for Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Garth Homer Society (813 Darwin Ave.). Council will make a decision on increased passholder and green fee rates after that meeting.

Almost 30 people voiced their opinions Tuesday. All were concerned about the operation of the golf course.

The restaurant’s chef, Dino Clarkson, suggested having staff currently employed in the restaurant and pro shop manage the entire operation.

Early next month, Cedar Hill golf course manager Gary Kelly will retire, and Saanich isn’t looking to replace him, confirmed Henderson, the parks and rec. director.

Coun. Leif Wergeland anticipates the restaurant closure will allow for an opportunity to refocus on all aspects of the course that are in financial trouble.

“We have to reevaluate what we’re doing and how it’s going to be managed. We’re not going to bulldoze it over,” he said. “Everyone on council wants to see it succeed, but we all understand we have to do things a whole lot different.”