Is Golf a Business or Service?
By mustang6560 on 6/28/11
Should a municipal golf course be run as a business to make money or should it run as a service to the community?

This is the very question the City Council of Houston, Texas is trying to answer.
According to the auditor, three of the four city-owned and operated golf courses lost money in the five-year span examined. Brock [Park Golf Course] lost an average of $462,000 a year. The course hosted only about 64 players a day. That means the course lost $19.74 on each round, according to the auditor.

"Twenty dollars per day per golfer in Brock Park could be better spent elsewhere in our park system," District C Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said.
I'm torn on this particular issue because part of me thinks that maintaining public golf courses is very much a service of a community that should be supported by the taxpayers. However, it's hard to justify supporting courses that lose money year in and year out.

I'm an advocate of the semi-private business model. Let those who want to join a course pay a monthly fee and give them some perks like scheduling weekend tee times a day before the general public, 25% off merchandise in the pro shop, free range balls, etc. Then, let the occasional golfer pay a nominal fee to play whenever they want.

It's no secret that the golf industry is hurting and it's not simply because of the global recession, granted it sure didn't help anything. Less rounds are being played annually, private memberships are down and most importantly, more golf courses are closing than opening. When you think about it in those terms, it's hard not to think it's the duty of the Houston City Council to find the funds to keep Brock Park and the other public courses open. The average golfer is not a member of a country club, so if a community stops financially backing municipal courses, how is the next generation of golfers going to be introduced to our great game?

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photo by dalechumbley

[ comments ]
Banker85 says:
Ther are in a "pickle".
brian575 says:
Well I live in Houston and will give a little more perspective on this issue. Brock Park is in a bad location, in fact I would say that it has the worst location of any course owned by the city of Houston. This course had a very bad reputation for a very long time because it did not have irrigation (it does now), they called it rock park because the fairways were so hard. I would also say that this course is by far the hardest of the city owned courses. So when you take all of these issues into consideration it is no surprise that this course is a money looser. There is so much snobbery in golf that the better players would never play at this course because of the bad location and being on the wrong side of the city. So then you get the novice golfers that play here that find that this course is hard and find somewhere else where they can learn to play and not loose 15 balls a round. If this course was near one of the nicer suburbs in town you could triple the green fees and the place would be packed.
dartboss04 says:
I was slightly torn, but not if the courses are losing money. If they can break even, great, but if not, I think you can turn the land into a park or something that the majority of people can use rather than only golfers. It just comes down to competition, and it seems like golfers in the houston area are choosing to go elsewhere.
bkuehn1952 says:
We are going through the same discussion here in Ann Arbor, MI. The City owns two courses. A number of years ago the City set-up the courses as a "Golf Enterprise" fund and the courses have, ON PAPER, been bleeding red ink. None of the other recreational facilities (ice rinks, pools, tennis courts, etc...) are expected to pay for themselves, just golf. Much of the debate involves two issues. The first is how the City does the accounting for the courses. They impose a large charge for the City's "overhead" which pushes the "Enterprise Fund" into a loss position. The second is why the City subsidizes all the rich golfers, who only make up 3% of the City's population, when there are many public-access courses available in the surrounding area. For now the courses remain open but for how long remains to be seen since neither the Mayor nor any council members are golfers.
Trav says:
Great issue for discussion!

Seems to me it depends - amount of use, amount of $ loss, unalterable budget constraints, etc. Public facilities by definition are money losers, but if they provide a needed service to a lot of people, they may be justifiable. 64 people a day sounds like too few to justify such an expense especuially if there are other munis avilable. My own county (Montgomery in MD) spent $$ to upgrade the public courses a few years ago, but they are well used, so I'm OK even if they lose money, like a community swim pool or buses, at least to a point. Also, I'll bet the city can make some $$ by developing the property for a more heavily used purpose.
TeT says:
it has to make ends meet... better service and facilities makes that happen.
mschad says:
We have 2 city courses; a par 3 and full length course. The full length course supports the par 3 financially. But just as mustang suggested, we can buy a yearly membership which allows us to golf as much as we want for that year on both courses. Non-members pay the regular green fees each time they golf. We also get a discount on merchandise in the club house.
Kurt the Knife says:
Our local tracks have always seemed healthy both in terms of use and condition so i never really thot about the financial arrangements we have. Got a call out the the GM at one of 'em. Gonna see wazzup.
Kickntrue says:
I think 64 golfers a day is pretty struggling. In the summer- you may have the daylight to send out 8 hours worth of tee times. Let's average a year and say that is 6 or 7. 64 golfers constitutes about 2 hours and 45 minutes of tee times. That's just not enough to justify public funds.
wrhall02 says:
Great topic. I think it depends on each city's (or town or municipality) specific set of finacials issues/goals. There is no balnket answer, each must decide the very question for themselves. Are they in the golf course biz for profit or providing a service to ctizens?
Neo says:
Ah Brock Park, I've played there quite a few times. Brian575 pretty much nailed it; it is in a terrible part of town. You have to pass by a large dump, and several run-down trailer parks to get there. I don't think the course is all that hard, most of the holes are long and straight. The issue then, is the bums.

There are literally a community of homeless people LIVING down in the drainage ditches that surround the property. They walk onto the course and get fresh water from the coolers at the tee boxes. At first, I thought they were grounds keepers. I told some friends about it, and they did not believe me until I took them out there to play. It is a very odd thing, and not the safest feeling environment if you know what I mean.

So between being in a bad part of town, that's pretty out of the way, you have to deal with the homeless throughout your round. Not a recipe for a winning course model if you ask me.

It'll be too bad if they close it though. I hate to see any courses shut down.
mjaber says:
If a city-owned course is losing money, it needs to be closed, sold, or changes need to be made to make it profitable. Owning/running a golf course is both a service and a business, but in order to provide the service, it needs to be run as a business. Where does the money come from to balance what the course is losing?

In this specific instance, I can't believe there is even a question. How much nicer would the city budget look without a big red 462,000 on it every year? If that money is coming out of the city coffers, what are they cutting to keep it open? How many city employees, and from what departments, have been laid off in the last few years, to make up the loss of the golf course?
mjaber says:
How many more emergency personnel, or what kind of improved equipment could be acquired, with an extra half-million a year? How many more teachers?

Playing golf is a priviledge, not a right. If the course can't be run efficiently and cost-effectively by the city, they need to let it go. Get it off the books, and use the money somewhere that it can benefit the city.
Kurt the Knife says:
make a gliderport out of it.

yeah, thats the ticket.
brianrhc says:
[ post comment ]
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