JACKSON — Mississippi has a lot of wonderful people. One of them is Sam Polles, 27-year executive director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Like most Mississippians, providence birthed Dr. Polles in Clarksdale, where his family had been in the restaurant business for 60 years.
He grew up working in the family business and was graduated from Clarksdale High School, then attended Delta State and Mississippi State. His father encouraged him to pursue his education, and young Sam ended up with a doctorate from Mississippi State.
He moved to Georgia, where he worked with the University of Georgia in agricultural research for seven years, then returned to Stoneville, Mississippi, to continue his research at the federal research facility there.
An opportunity opened up to manage a private company involved in pecan orchards, nurseries, hunting leases and oil and gas. He eventually took an ownership position, which led to an eventual sale and a return to ag consulting.
Along the way, he and his wife of 48 years, Mary Margaret Humber Polles, raised three sons and now have six grandsons.
In 1992, Gov. Kirk Fordice hired him to his current position as executive director of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), which is how I came to be sitting in his conference room earlier this month.
Joining us was Randy Watkins, owner of Randy Watkins Golf Group, which manages Whisper Lake, Lake Caroline and Patrick Farms — all 18-hole golf courses in the Jackson metro area.
Randy is another great Mississippi success story. In his youth, he was a pro golfer and once teed off at the U.S. Open alongside Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and other legends.
Randy didn’t come from a wealthy family, and he didn’t make it big on the pro tour, but through hard work and a great personality, he has forged a successful golfing company in Jackson. He works it. I see him all the time working weekends at his courses, monitoring his operation and shaking hands with his customers.
I find it absolutely incredible that within 20 minutes of my house, I can affordably play on three different 18-hole golf courses, all in good condition, with well-manicured greens, great layouts, friendly staff and available tee times.
The Northside Sun newspaper, for which I am publisher, has written about the future of LeFleur’s Bluff nine-hole golf course, which the City of Jackson ceded to MDWFP in 1986. Dr. Polles and Randy wanted to explain the situation.
Randy, with absolute command of every single cost and requirement of a golf course, explained to me why it would be impossible to make the golf course self-sufficient by upgrading. It’s caught between the high end and the low end. There’s simply not enough high-end demand to make it a quality course.
So the only Lefleur Bluff self-sustaining model is to appeal to the casual, occasional golfer, often retired, who just wants to get outside every once in a while and whack a golf ball without spending much money. This is especially true with Flowood about to open its new high-end upgrade of The Refuge.
MDWFP manages three other public golf courses for the state: Quail Hollow in McComb, Mallard Pointe in Sardis and The Dogwoods in Grenada. These courses were built using state Legislature bond bills in the 1990s and given to MDWFP to run.
There’s only one problem: The Legislature hasn’t given MDWFP any money to run the courses. Located in rural areas during an era of declining golfers and diminishing number of courses nationwide, MDWFP has struggled to find a profitable sweet spot.
Meanwhile, neighboring state of Alabama has the Robert Trent Jones Trail — 468 holes at 11 sites, all top-quality courses. These courses are funded through the Alabama public employees retirement fund. They lose about $20 million a year, but the fund’s CEO, David Bronner, says they are good for tourism.
Dr. Polles has bigger problems than just golf courses. His 2020 general fund appropriation is less than half what it was 20 years ago. That makes it difficult to maintain 65 state parks with 607 structures, 85 miles of road, 45 miles of power lines, 288 transformers, 300 cabins and rooms and 1,856 campsites.
Are we willing to let our parks go down the tubes? What sort of impression does that project throughout the state? Our Republican leadership wants to “starve the beast,” but we’re talking basic park maintenance here.
Dr. Polles is no wide-eyed radical. He’s about as straitlaced and conservative as a Mississippian can be.
I am sympathetic to the difficulties of generating funds in a state like Mississippi with a small population. But prisons, law enforcement, roads, mental health, education and parks are basic functions of government that must be properly maintained or they will deteriorate into nothing. MDWFP’s total budget is one-fourth the average of our four neighboring states. Something has got to give.