East Lake Skeptic

This Cy Connelly piece for Sports Network offers some pithy comments about East Lake and the Tour.

These days, its not enough for the Tour to put on golf tournaments; it needs to be a highly visible (and tax-deductible) force for social change. Its all quite heartwarming stuff, except that while passion is hard to quantify, the financing behind the East Lake revival is not. Simply put, while a lot of money has flowed into East Lake, its not clear that golf has played a central role, despite the Tours continued focus on the East Lake story.

Of the $100 million thats been invested in East Lake, over $70 million came from only two sources: Tom Cousins, a prominent Atlanta real-estate developer with a strong philanthropic bent; and the U.S. federal government, through its "Hope VI" program for restoring public housing.

Various corporations contributed nearly another $20 million indirectly, as part of a national drive to recruit members for the restored East Lake Golf Club, which is now strictly private. (In the old days, the course was a popular choice among promising local juniors because, as Stewart Cink pointed out, "you could always get on.")

As Cousins cheerfully concedes, however, these memberships were structured to provide a substantial tax break. In return, the corporations got near- exclusive access to a top-flight golf course. Ray Robinson, Chairman of East Lake Foundation, slipped a little off-message at last years Tour Championship, noting dryly, "The golf course has little to do with whats over [at East Lake community], because this is a private club; the neighbors dont belong." The neighborhood kids are, however, welcome as caddies, though the clubs "no tipping" policy may come as a surprise to them.

Ouch. Now, as much as I enjoyed this passage, it's not quite entirely true:

For its part, the Tours actual contribution to the East Lake Foundation was roughly $700,000 last year. To put this in context, the Tour plans to spend $24 million upgrading the TPC Avenel course next year, part of the continuing cost of its unwillingness to take on the equipment manufacturers and rein in driving distances.

Actually, it's just not a very good course. Though added length and the elimination of a birdie friendly (perish the thought) par-5 are components of the redo plan.

And how about the highly-touted East Lake charter school, whose pupils will be trotted out for todays "Drive to a Billion" photo op? Its actually run by the controversial Edison Schools outfit, a for-profit concern best known for two things: shareholder lawsuits and its proposal to require students to do unpaid administrative work, as a means of cutting operating costs. Last week, Edisons efforts in "Little Vietnam" were given a borderline-passing grade by the people who brought us "Big Vietnam" - thats right, the RAND Corporation. Tough marks given that Edison itself had commissioned the study and paid $1.6 million for it.


All of which leaves the Tour sitting squarely in the middle of a broad experiment in social engineering. To the extent the East Lake story works, credit goes to a strong-willed developer with a social conscience and a lot of federal dollars to spend. Can the experiment be replicated elsewhere? Not if the White Houses current budget passes: it eliminates the "Hope VI" program entirely. If the Tour and its corporate sponsors hope to add more federally subsidized golf communities to the PGA rotation, they should get in touch with their lobbyists immediately.