Tuesday, August 4, 2009

With Golfers Teed Off, Council Takes a Swing at Course Hours

Posted By on Tue, Aug 4, 2009 at 6:04 PM

The City Council's executive committee today asked the parks division to find another solution for area golfers.

Starting with the new fiscal year July 1st, the parks department cut hours of operation at several area golf courses. That schedule favors mornings for afternoons, and weekends over weekdays.

"We have six golf courses that are open 40 hours a week. We wanted people to have the opportunity to play when they want to play, and many people like to play golf in the mornings," said division director Cindy Buchanan. "But some people can't play in the mornings because they have to work."

During the last budget cycle, the parks division budget was cut by $2.9 million. About $590,000 of that came from golf courses.

In an effort to reopen several courses to seven-days-a-week, the parks division has looked at the idea of closing courses during the winter and re-opening them full-time during the summer.

"Unfortunately, winter doesn't cost as much as summer," Buchanan said, citing cost reductions of about $2,500. "The cost to open in the summer is about four times that. For every month closed [in the winter] you get only one week of seven days [in the summer]."

Two courses Audubon and Galloway are still open seven days a week, but both of those are making a profit. Any cuts to those facilities' hours would leave the city worse off financially.

Buchanan said the division got rid of as many soft costs as it could during the recent budget cut, including part-time workers. Everything left full-time employees, utilities, and course maintenance are fixed costs. Which left council members and golfers wondering how much the city was seeing in savings with the closed courses.

"By closing, what do you save?" asked Pine Hill golfer Gavin Porter. "You still have employees; you still have to cut the grass; you still have the lights on."

Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware asked that the previous hours of operation be reinstated.

"Some of [the courses] might not make money, but that's no fault of the citizens. ... We still have a responsibility," she said. "Playgrounds don't make money, but we can't close all the playgrounds and say kids can't go there because we're not making any money."

Calling golf courses a "legacy amenity," councilman Kemp Conrad presented a drive-time analysis that he said suggested the city could close a golf course and still have ample capacity for area golfers.

"If you look at Overton, it's in the center of town. Within a 10-minute drive, you have Audubon, Pine Hill, and Riverside," he said. "One option may be as opposed to chopping up hours to look at which is furthest away or 10 percent utilized and close a course."

The parks department says it is open to suggestions from citizens.

"Other options we considered were actually closing golf courses that had lower attendance. We also looked at raising fees," Buchanan said. "We know that's not popular and it's not something we want to do, but we all know the budget was cut."

UPDATE: Kemp Conrad asked that I clarify that he's not for closing a bunch of golf courses.

He writes: "The reality is we have 8 and a ton of capacity and closing one that is 10 percent utilized, 90 percent to break even, and within 5 minutes of another course, where we subsidize each round to the tune of $100 per round, and it averages about 10 rounds a day and costs us over $300 k per year ..

Maybe it makes sense to look at closing this to keep all 7 other courses open w long hours."

For the record, I don't think that's a bad idea, but I'm not a golfer, either. It seems like the issue of golf courses comes up every single year, whether during budget time or afterward, and the issue is always the same. We don't have as many golfers as we have courses for them to play. Especially when you add in the area courses that are not city owned and operated. Some are profitable; most are not.

Is golf the same kind of amenity as community centers, libraries and playgrounds? I'm not sure. I know that the city built a lot of them — one for every council district, if I'm not mistaken — and has put a lot of money into maintaining them.

Of course, my boss, who is an avid golfer, might disagree with me.

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