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Lakeside group fights for their golf course: ‘It’s hard to think they would do away with it’

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Last weekend, Bethpage Public Golf course on Long Island was at the center of the golfing world, hosting the PGA Championship won for the second straight year by Brooks Koepka.

The black course at Bethpage was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, one of the most prolific golf architects in the sport's history.

Exactly 70 years ago, another Tillinghast designed course hosted the PGA Championship at what is now the Belmont Golf Course in Lakeside. Virginia's Sam Snead won the tournament back then, the only major golf championship ever to be contested in the state.

Jeff Staton was the golf professional at Belmont for 22 years and would regularly have people come back who had a direct connection to that tournament.

"There were quite a few that would come around and mention that they had been there or their mom and dad had been there," Staton remembered. "The golf course has been changed over the years but for the most part it's still pretty much the layout it was with a few minor changes."

Peter Grainger has lived next to Belmont's 11th fairway for the past two decades. He considers Belmont to be more than just a plot of land in his neighborhood.

"This course and Lewis Ginter (Botanical Gardens) are the centers of it really," Grainger said.  "They make Lakeside what it is. It's just a classic golf course."

"It's (Belmont) been here for 103 years. It's hard to think they would do away with it."

Belmont used to see over 40,000 rounds played on its layout each year, a big number in the golfing industry. But over the last decade, golfing numbers have declined nationwide. Last year's near-record-setting rain did not help any course but hit Belmont particularly hard.

The course has turned a profit just once in the past decade and averages a loss of a quarter million dollars a year.

It's a small percentage of the county's overall budget, but still a significant loss.

"So the premise that let's just subsidize a golf course is just not what a AAA rated locality does," explained Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas.

The losses have led the county to at least consider turning Belmont into a green space area, more of a traditional park that would cost less to operate and be used by more than the 3100 Henrico residents that played golf at Belmont last year.

That led to the formation of the Save Belmont Foundation, a group of Lakeside residents who have turned out in strong numbers at three public hearings.

"I was surprised by the number of non-golfers that turned out in support of retention for the golf course as I think the county was," Grainger said. "The first meeting was chaotic."

"You see democracy in action and you see folks coming forward saying 'listen to us,'" Vithoulkas added. "And that's the intent."

Henrico officials are seeking proposals from management companies to run the day-to-day operations and possibly begin selling alcohol at the course, something the county cannot do. And they would like to tie Belmont in with their other tourism efforts.

One thing universally agreed upon is the best way to keep Belmont open, is to have golfers come back and play as much as possible.

"Belmont has meant so many things to so many people and I think it's going to stay that way," Vithoulkas said.

"I never like to see a golf course go away," Staton added. "Keep it a golf course. It deserves to be a golf course. Let the public enjoy that golf course and what it's meant."

Henrico County leaders tell CBS 6 that next year's budget already includes an operating loss for Belmont, but state law will not allow officials to make any concrete budget promises beyond that.

There is no timetable for a solution, but the county is actively seeking management firms to take over day-to-day operations of Belmont.

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