Chip Bird was keeping a low profile at the dedication ceremony for the statue of Stanley Thompson that was being unveiled at Highlands Links on Sunday. Bird, the field unit superintendent for Parks Canada in the eastern part of Canada, is the driving force behind the decision to create a request for proposal for Highlands Links and the Keltic Lodge. He’s on record as saying that a new owner/operator would likely not use the existing unionized staff, something that has left many of the employees at the facility unclear on what their future looks like.
Bird stood watching the ceremony with his wife, but chatted with me after about what the plan is for the process. The RFP is out – with much of the information led by industry consultant Stephen Johnson. Proposals will be submitted by mid-November, with a decision coming soon after. Apparently in work done for Highlands a few years ago, Johnson said there wasn’t anyone interested in taking over the golf course. Bird is doesn’t by that.
“We’re trying to keep focused on finding a positive outcome,” Bird says.
Parks Canada has called fore on the private operation of the acclaimed Highlands Links golf course and Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa in Ingonish Beach.
A request for proposals to manage, operate and maintain the two well-known but money-losing Cape Breton tourist attractions was issued Tuesday.
It invites applications for proposals to enter into a lease agreement for up to 42 years.
Bird said the government was keen to divest itself of the course by 2008, but it wasn’t in the condition to hand it over to a private operator. Now he says those conditions are improved under the direction of architect Ian Andrew, who has led the restoration at Highlands.
So what is a “positive outcome” for Highlands? Right now the conditions are improved, but still don’t measure up to what one would expect from a private facility. Details are missed, and there’s no superintendent at the course. No private operator would find that acceptable. In fact, I wonder if the improvements to the bunkers highlight the remaining deficiencies. Before it was a mess. Now there are 18 good greens, and the bunkers have been done properly, highlighting the lack of drainage and the problems with the sixth hole.
Status quo wouldn’t be the worst situation, but it would leave the course without much government support, without a professional superintendent and without direction. GM Graham Hudson has gone just about as far as he can in fixing the course given his limitations and frankly, the course probably needs millions more in improvements, money that is unlikely to come from the federal government. And as much as I love Highlands Links, I wonder whether it will continue to hold its Top 100 in the world ranking when that list comes out next year.