OPINION: Wildcreek Golf Course and the winds of change

The back nine of Wildcreek Golf Course from the Wedekind Hills.
The back nine of Wildcreek Golf Course from the Wedekind Hills. This will be the space the high school will occupy. Image: Don Vetter

By Don Vetter

Wildcreek Golf Course as we know it ended a 40-year run this past Sunday, a brilliant windless day that turned the little valley of controversy into a golden child of fond memories.

While not as iconic as the Mapes Hotel, Wildcreek will always serve as a historical totem which reflects our towns’ inspirations and aspirations…warts and all. It’s a shame that our school district couldn’t see that unique history and preserve the Wildcreek saga by naming its $200 million (estimated) high school after the course. (They chose to stay with Hug High School).

The Wildcreek topography is a mix of willowed wetlands that ascend into the hard rock scrabble of the former Wedekind Mining District, today the largest piece of open park lands left in the City of Sparks.

The course’s lowlands were a part of John Capurro’s dairy farm. His family was among the many Italian, don’t forget the Irish, immigrants who helped form the community’s breadbasket. There was no trendy local food movement back in the late 1800s; “local food” was just how you got fresh milk, fruit and vegetables.

On Wildcreek’s western border, the Orr Ditch (1875) still winds its way to the once bucolic Spanish Springs Valley, a reminder of the engineering it took to cultivate the towns’ 20,000+ acres of farm lands in the Great Basin Desert.

Golfers teeing off at hole #3 at Wildcreek Golf Course
A full course meant a long day, but no one rally cared. This is a group teeing off at No. 3.
Photo: Don Vetter

From farm land to “golf-cation” amenity

Wildcreek was opened at the end of the go-go ’70s, another amenity to help fill the 1,000-plus new hotel rooms thrust into the market from the Circus-Circus, MGM Grand (i.e. Reno Hilton and Grand Sierra Resort) and other casino resorts that were erected in that decade. The course was part of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority’s (RSCVA) Reno “golf-cation” strategy: golf in the morning followed by showgirls, blackjack and 99-cent jumbo shrimp cocktails until the next tee time.

The RSCVA purchased the major portion of the site for $165,000 in 1974 from renowned professional bridge player Joe Conforte and his wife Sally, probably better known as the proprietors of the Mustang Ranch Brothel. (RSCVA also cobbled together some BLM property for the site.)

Then Washoe County District Attorney Cal Dunlap empanelled a grand jury to investigate not only the sale, but also the general relationship between Conforte, the Sparks and Reno city councils, the Washoe County Commission, the Reno-Sparks Convention Authority, a Sparks municipal judge, a former state senator and Reno City Councilman and realtor Clyde Biglieri.

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Biglieri, who died in 2018, spent a good portion of his later years trying to clear his name from conflict of interest charges leveled against him in the March 1976 grand jury report. With the help of the ACLU, the Nevada Supreme Court eventually ordered his name expunged from the report.

Members of the University of Nevada Men’s Golf Team dubbed the course ‘Wild Bounce,’ a moniker which stuck through most of the course’s history.”

Two years later, Wildcreek opened to mixed reviews. The back nine, built hard against the Wedekind hills, had a definite slant that would drive golfers batty (“I swore I hit it in the fairway”). It even tilted the tempers of the professional senior golfers like the great Sam Snead, who descended on the course from 1983-85, the first taste of PGA Tour golf that the town experienced.

It was during those years that members of the University of Nevada Men’s Golf Team dubbed the course “Wild Bounce,” a moniker which stuck through most of the course’s history even after the RSCVA spent more than $300,000 trying to flatten the back nine, in particular rebuilding the green on the par 5 14th. This hole was also the scene of a golfer-caused brush fire that garnered some national media attention.

Wildcreek was an early adopter in our community efforts to employ more treated effluent water for irrigation — recognition of modern urban life in a desert. Unfortunately, the program didn’t have enough customers to keep costs down. The mid-’90s deal had the RSCVA spending $300,000 annually through 2021, exchanging its Truckee River water rights to the City of Sparks for the reclaimed water.

This big payment, thanks to a lack of others hooking into the purple pipe to reduce the course’s outlay, was a big reason Wildcreek could never pencil out in its last decade of  operation.

Golfers' plaques at Wildcreek Golf Course.
Golfers’ plaques at Wildcreek Golf Course. Photo: Don Vetter

Local growth threatens change

The course’s latest chapter began in April 2017 when the Washoe County School District identified about 75 of the 140-acre site as one of four potential parcels for a new high school. Its infill location and existing road, water, internet and sewer infrastructure made it their top choice and a good relief valve for the burgeoning Spanish Springs and Reed high schools.

The revenue for the school came thanks to the passage of a 2016 ballot measure to raise sales taxes; a big-money campaign that succeeded where other school tax efforts had failed. Over the last 30 years, our track record shows that we generally don’t vote to raise taxes in Reno, Sparks or Washoe County.

The RSCVA as golf course manager was unique — most convention and tourism agencies don’t manage facilities — and not terribly successful at sustaining its golf resources. The RSCVA’s Northgate Golf Course closed in 2009 after a 20-year run and the property remains abandoned. Plus, the golfing landscape had changed dramatically with more “resort course” competition that would satisfy the casinos’ customer amenity packages.

The school district’s targeting of Wildcreek brought a familiar action when any large development project attempts to dramatically change the physical and cultural landscape — Not in My Backyard (NIMBY). Nearby residents and the golfers who consider the course a home away from home mounted a kitchen sink rebuttal that claimed everything from corruption and malfeasance at the District to traffic gridlock and the dreaded decrease in property values should the school plans come to fruition.

A lawsuit filed by Save Wildcreek, LLC was dismissed last fall by District Court Judge David A. Hardy thanks to an overwhelming legal defense team and the unusual political occurrence of the School District, RSCVA and the County Commissioners all rowing in the same direction. It might have been our first “OK Boomer” moment, as the judge said the group, mostly comprised of  long-time residents, held “no legal standing” to pursue their action to stop the project.

Read the full Motion to Dismiss here.

Golfers enjoy a cocktail at Bogey's Bar & Grill on the final day.
Golfers enjoy a cocktail at Bogey’s Bar & Grill on the final day of Wildcreek Golf Course.

One last moment in the golden autumn sun

There was no dramatic, Mapes-like implosion on Wildcreek’s last day. Just a course full of golfers enjoying one last moment in the golden autumn sun. Maybe the new school’s civics teachers (do we still teach that?) can include this case history of what it takes for a community to morph itself into the next generation’s favorite hometown.  

Change. That is what the new high school with the old name represents at Wildcreek Golf Course. It won’t end with Wildcreek. The course may or may not come back as the County vaguely promised to use $1 million from the  $5.1 million land sale to create a smaller golf and recreation resource at the south end of the site. The little nine-hole layout is expected to stay open during construction. Public groundbreaking is set for Nov. 22.

Don Vetter was the local golf reporter at the Reno Gazette-Journal 1990-91. He has since done marketing and public relations for local and regional golf courses as well as regional economic development programs.

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2 Comments

  1. I think the combination of less interest in golf by younger generations, more drought years since 2000, and the fact that Reno/Sparks is not a year-round optimal climate for golf has killed off a lot of golf courses. The D’Andrea closure was more mismanagement of the course, resulting in a large outstanding water bill that HOA members, primarily in the 55+ section of the community, voted against bailing out.

  2. The golf industry in general is on the decline, as the number of rounds being played has been trending steadily downward for decades as the average golfer’s age has gone up. I remember Northgate (2009), Brookside (2006), D’Andrea (2012), Rosewood (2015), and Crystal Peak (2010). You just cannot keep them open at a perpetual loss. RSCVA spent $200,000+ annually to keep Wildcreek open. I love golf, but the economics of it were unsustainable and unavoidable. Like most players I don’t want to pay the more realistic $200 – $300 green fees. A large school with a bit of open space is so much better option than a waste-transfer station, NDOT yard, yet another apartment complex, or a souless subdivision. I agree the HS naming was a lame idea: The “Hug” name has a historic connection, but not all for the good.

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