The idea was simple: Merge three local chapters of the First Tee, a national youth golf organization, into a regional powerhouse that would vastly improve participation, name recognition and fundraising capability.
The reality was more complex: a contentious meeting that divided First Tee Akron’s board of directors.
Nearly two years later, the effects are still being felt.
Leaders of the “Cleveland takeover,” as one Akron city official called the meeting in the fall of 2011, apparently didn’t feel they would meet much resistance to the proposed merger. But the plan fell apart when Marco Sommerville, then the Akron City Council president, heard what the regional backers had in mind for the Akron and Canton chapters.
“To be honest about it,” Sommerville told the Beacon Journal about the proposed merger, “I feel proud I put the kibosh to it.”
Sommerville said he was opposed to the merger concept mainly because the city-owned and operated Mud Run Golf Course was bankrolled — to the tune of $5.3 million — specifically to host First Tee Akron when the program’s first full season opened there in 2003. Any change in First Tee Akron would threaten finances at Mud Run.
Mud Run was supposed to be for the kids of Akron — kids who “never would have had the chance to play golf because they couldn’t afford it,” Sommerville said.
There were clearly defined issues on both sides, according to numerous Beacon Journal interviews with current and former First Tee principals, but the proposed merger ultimately fell apart in December 2011, when Akron board members loyal to Mud Run rejected it by majority vote.
Word of the failed effort came to light this summer, when an area businessman asserted that since the merger’s rejection:
• Membership on the First Tee Akron board and the number of kids registered in the program have declined sharply.
• A major charity golf outing planned for mid-August at Firestone County Club and featuring LeBron James abruptly was canceled because First Tee leadership failed to attract enough participants.
• Funding for the nonprofit group, through sponsors and other charity events, is slipping to such an extent the program might disband.
But according to Sommerville, an original First Tee board member who was named Akron planning director in June, and fellow board member John Valle, who has been with First Tee since 2007, those concerns are unfounded or exaggerated.
Vincent King, the current executive director at First Tee Akron, a nonprofit entity with about $500,000 in assets, addressed the issues in an interview that board Chairman Quentin McCorvey Sr. also attended.
“The thought that the chapter is in dire straights is certainly not comical, but it’s very far from where we currently are,” King said.
“We have high expectations. We have high standards for our participants, our family members, our staff and our board members, and that is what continues to drive us to be successful.”
Valle and Sommerville said James could not make the fundraising event at Firestone because of scheduling conflicts related to preparing for his wedding, set for this weekend.
Adam Mendelsohn, a spokesman for James, said the foundation works with many organizations across Akron, but has not formalized any relationship with First Tee.
Valle, who was named last year as Akron’s director of neighborhood assistance, acknowledged that a successful LeBron James Family Foundation golf outing would have provided financial help.
“It was a pretty big-ticket item,” Valle said. Turnout would have been huge, he said, even at the price of $3,500 per foursome.
“Having LeBron James there at Firestone,” Valle said, “you easily could have had $3,500 per foursome with corporate Akron, the hospitals, the FirstEnergies and the other large corporations. But without LeBron, no, you cannot do that.”
Instead of scrambling to pull off the event, the First Tee board decided it was best to cancel and reschedule for next year, Valle said, “with a date that works best on LeBron’s calendar. His foundation came to us on this.”
The merger issue, McCorvey said, also cut into planning for other fundraising events.
“When we were going through the whole merger discussions, everything was focused on the merger, so there were a couple of fundraisers we had done in the past that we didn’t do during that time, because it was about a year and a half process,” he said.
Sommerville said he and Mayor Don Plusquellic were adamant in opposing the merger. The city’s investment in Mud Run, which eventually grew to about $7 million, was the chief reason.
“We took a lot of heat in the community, because people didn’t understand what we were trying to do there,” Sommerville said of building the golf course.
The central idea of Mud Run and the First Tee, established in 1997 by the World Golf Association, was to bring more opportunities — “diversity,” as Sommerville called it — to kids in local neighborhoods.
“Listen, we built that course with city funds,” Sommerville stressed. “We didn’t build it for the region. The region didn’t pay anything for that golf course; the city of Akron did.”
Sommerville said he would have been more open to a merger if the Cleveland faction had agreed to put some money on the table for Mud Run, but that idea was refused.
Board members who supported the merger apparently felt bigger was better, he said.
“They brought these people in from Cleveland, and they said, ‘Listen, here’s the president, here’s the chairman of the board, here’s the staff,’ ” Sommerville said.
“I said, ‘Well, I hear all that, but where are you going to play golf?’ They said, ‘We’re going to play golf here.’ I said, ‘I didn’t think so.’ ”
Sommerville said discussions also included talk of moving the office headquarters from Mud Run to the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio office in Macedonia, in northern Summit County.
“It’s like so many things that have happened to Akron in the past: ‘Oh, we’re going to Cleveland, and it’s going to be better.’ And then what happens? You end up losing it all,” Sommerville said. “So I told them that’s just not going to be.”
Valle also was against the merger.
“We wanted Mud Run to be the home office. We have a beautiful facility here. [First Tee] Canton was going to do whatever we decided to do,” Valle said.
But the Cleveland faction, he said, was aiming “right away” to put their people in charge of everything and to move First Tee’s base to Macedonia or Twinsburg.
“We’re thinking: ‘You know what? This is like a Cleveland takeover.’ That’s how we felt [on the other side],” Valle said.
He did not shy away from conceding how rejecting the merger has affected First Tee Akron.
“We had 22, 23, 24 and, in some years, 25 board members. I’m talking about some good board members who spent a lot of years with us and were excellent at fundraising. A lot of them dropped out immediately after we nixed the merger with Cleveland,” Valle said.
The board now has nine members, with efforts underway to strengthen it with more corporate Akron membership, he said.
Division of opinion
Kevin D. Harris, a partner in the Canton accounting firm Harris Miller & Finkelstein, was board chairman of First Tee Akron during the merger talks and said he worked “very hard on that process.”
He would not go into detail about why board members left, but did say there was “clearly a division of opinion on what was in the best interest of the chapter.”
Harris said the home office in Florida was pushing the concept of regional chapters.
Top officials at First Tee headquarters in St. Augustine declined to comment directly on the Cleveland-Akron-Canton merger talks. Harris left no doubt about where he stood.
“I saw what I thought to be some real benefits in an attempt to raise the First Tee as a brand and an image in the public conscience,” he said.
One benefit, other than a staff streamlining from three local chapter executives to one regional head, would be broader funding sources and, thus, the attraction of more kids.
“What do you think the mayor of Cuyahoga Falls would think if First Tee Akron comes knocking and says, ‘We’d like to have an event at the muni course in Cuyahoga Falls?’
“If you’re ‘the First Tee of Northeast Ohio,’ you knock down the silos,” Harris said.
He said he was not bitter over the failed merger and did not leave for that reason. His term as chairman was scheduled to end before it came to that, Harris said, but he stayed on to continue the talks.
A lasting impression
King, 43, the current executive director, was born in Cleveland, became a star basketball player at Beachwood High and Indiana (Pa.) University, then went on to play professionally overseas for 10 years.
He was immediately attracted to golf, he said, when a friend, former Chicago Bulls star Brad Sellers, told him to tune in to the first major PGA tournament of 1997, when Tiger Woods, at age 21, won his first of four Masters Tournament titles, blowing away the field by 12 shots.
As King conducted a lengthy interview, about two dozen First Tee kids were outside on the Mud Run course, working on the practice areas with the volunteer coaches, who are led by Ryan Maxwell, King’s chief assistant.
Maxwell, in his fifth year with First Tee, is a former Walsh Jesuit golfer and a 2008 Kent State graduate in sports management.
King points to Maxwell’s job title, “Golf and Life Skills” coach, as the best example that First Tee Akron isn’t closing its doors.
Its logs show the program had 304 kids registered in 2008, followed by a high of 359 in 2009 and a low of 220 in 2011.
King said there are about 210 participating this year, with the main enrollment sessions, Fall 1 and Fall 2, timed in mid-September, when kids have settled into school.
They learn more than how to play golf. King said they learn how to do things that will have lasting impressions on their lives.
“Our kids,” he said, “aren’t looking down at their shoelaces when they shake your hand, they’re not afraid to say their names, they’re not afraid to look you in the eyes and tell you who they are, where they live and what they represent.
“They’re proud of being in this program,” King said.
McCorvey, the board chairman, said the program’s lessons of life, “the things that really can’t be measured,” are what matter most.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.