I scooped up the free weekly Rockville newspaper from the end of our driveway, before it could get run over yet again. Optimistically hoping to find a part-time job for my teenager, instead I winced with disappointment when I opened the paper and read one of the front page headlines: “Golf Course Study Correction Paints Darker Financial Picture.” Despite the warming weather, suddenly things weren’t looking so sunny at RedGate Golf Course again.
Due to a spreadsheet error (and when haven’t we all been betrayed by Excel at one time or another?), the projected $100,000 profit at RedGate after five years of outsourced management was now forecast to be a $1.5 million deficit. Certain members of the city council went ballistic, and abruptly the conversation shifted from whether or not to outsource management of the course to whether Rockville needed a golf course at all.
This time attending the city council meeting in person would be particularly onerous due to a very full agenda including the entire 2012 city budget, which promised to drag on late into the evening. So I tuned in the next day to the online video, which is helpfully bookmarked to the meeting agenda, allowing you to click right to part you want to watch. Pretty slick!
To make a long story short, a motion to close the golf course within a month and “return it to nature” was quickly quashed by a 3-2 vote. No doubt the debate was colored by an earlier vote to cut the entire parks and recreation budget and raise athletic league fees. But the discussion still brought up an interesting point—under what circumstances should we expect that park facilities like golf courses will be self-sustaining? Is $400,000 out of a $7.5 million annual parks and recreation budget (or $108 million overall city budget) really that unreasonable? Isn’t it possible that the golf course provides at least $400,000 in benefits to the city, both economically and in quality of life? (See our January issue for more on this.)
I asked these questions of Richard Singer of the National Golf Foundation, author of the RedGate study (and subsequent mea culpa). He said that it is difficult to gauge the proportion of municipal golf operations which are self-sustaining due to so many differences in accounting and comparing expenses. RedGate’s operating overhead seems particularly high, which is why NGF recommends outsourcing the management. There is also no way to put a dollar figure on the quality of life issues, or even the economic benefit to the city. Fortunately, NGF is working on a major study of municipal golf courses that he hopes will provide some more quantitative data to answer these questions, with the results to be presented at the NRPA and NGF sponsored Municipal Golf Institute at Oglebay this September. Hopefully this apples-to-apples comparison will demonstrate when muni courses are on par with their peers and help them to avoid those financial bunkers.
Parks & Recreation magazine