Green Fees 

With golfers teed off about reduced hours at area courses, Memphis takes a mulligan.

click to enlarge Six courses are located within a 15-minute drive from Overton Park.
  • Six courses are located within a 15-minute drive from Overton Park.

After golfers showed up at City Hall to complain about changes at municipal golf courses, the City Council asked park services to take another swing at cutting costs.

Starting last month, the parks department cut hours of operation at six of the city's eight courses to 40 hours a week. The move was part of a $2.9 million cut from the park services' 2010 budget, of which about $590,000 came from golf.

The new schedule favors mornings over afternoons and weekends over weekdays, but it's not a big hit with all area golfers.

"We wanted people to have the opportunity to play when they want to play, and many people like to play in the mornings," park services director Cindy Buchanan told council members. "But some people can't play in the mornings, because they have to work."

Buchanan said the department considered closing courses in the winter and reopening them full-time in the summer, but that wouldn't cover the shortfall. "Unfortunately, winter doesn't cost as much as summer," she said. "The cost to open in the summer is about four times that [of the winter]. For every month closed, you only get one week [in the summer]."

Two of the city courses — the Links at Audubon and the Links at Galloway — are still open seven days a week, but both of those facilities generate a profit for the city.

The rest of the city courses operated at a collective $1.8 million loss last year. The city's biggest losers were the Links at Whitehaven, which lost $429,000 last year, and the Links at Pine Hill, which lost $382,000.

"We've considered actually closing golf courses that have lower attendance. We've 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 budgets are cut."

Councilman Kemp Conrad said that the competition facing the city courses has changed in recent years.

"Before, if you didn't belong to a private club, the only choice was to play at a municipal course," he said. "In the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of daily-fee courses have sprung up."

The most recent, Justin Timberlake's Mirimichi in Millington, opened last month.

In 2004, people played 124,000 rounds of golf at city courses. Four years later, that number was down to 101,000 rounds.

Using the nine-hole course in Overton Park as a central location, Conrad performed a drive-time analysis that showed four other city courses — three of them 18-hole courses — were within a 10-minute drive. Within a 15-minute drive, there were six.

"Let's think about consolidating courses instead of cutting hours," Conrad said. "One option may be to look at which is farthest away or only 10 percent utilized, and close a course."

Some council members argue that the eight courses are an important amenity the city provides to its citizens.

"Some of [the courses] might not make money, but that's not the fault of the citizens. ... We still have a responsibility," said councilmember Barbara Swearengen Ware. "Playgrounds don't make money, but we can't close all the playgrounds because we're not making any money."

But if the question isn't how many courses the city needs, maybe it's how many can Memphis afford.

The Links of Riverside has been on the chopping block before. Closed for several years while the city built a $1.3 million clubhouse, Riverside was the least-played course in 2004, 2007, and 2008. Last year, the course cost the city $334,000. So if 3,260 rounds were played there, the city subsidized each round by about $100.

Even if golf courses are important amenities, that seems a high per-user cost. And if we're talking about responsibility to citizens, it might be important to look at exactly who course users are.

Riverside gets a steady stream of downtown and Harbor Town residents and tourists. But on a recent morning, a third of the parking lot's cars bore Arkansas plates.

Twenty-year-old Brian Branch said he has played the course twice a week for the last two summers. He likes how affordable the fees are — $13 for one round, $20 for two — but his main reason for coming is location.

"It's the closest to get to," explained the Tyronza, Arkansas, resident.

Park services is expected to bring other golf options before the City Council in coming weeks.

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