Publicly owned golf courses losing money, and taxpayers pay
Now's not a good time to be in the golf business.
Unfortunately for most suburban taxpayers, they are in the golf business, thanks to one or more of their local governments.
A confluence of the economic downturn, declining interest in the sport, poor weather and a glut of course options has many government-operated golf course budget-makers wishing for a mulligan.
"There are too many golf courses and not enough golfers," said Michael Miller, executive director of the Illinois Professional Golfers' Association. "For the health of the industry, some of the golf courses may have to go away."
Meanwhile, taxpayers end up covering the losses of these publicly owned courses that are operating -- sometimes continuously -- in the red.
Taxpayers in the Bensenville Park District might be among the hardest hit, paying taxes to three different layers of government that own money-losing golf courses.
The park district's own White Pines Golf Course has lost more than $1.5 million over the past three years, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District's three golf courses are projected to lose $729,048 this year, and the DuPage Airport Authority's Prairie Landing Golf Course in West Chicago lost $134,341 in 2013, according to budgets and audits available at those taxing bodies' websites.
Bensenville Park District's new executive director, Rick Robbins, said the operational staff of the golf course has been shaken up in hopes of turning things around there.
"We opened a new bar and grill," Robbins said. "There are just too many courses for anybody to be making money, but our goal is to be the premier choice."
The Lake County Forest Preserve District decided to pull back from the golf industry, but even that came at a price.
The forest preserve district's golf budget took a $1 million hit last year when it shelved plans to refurbish and reopen Fort Sheridan Golf Course after years of debate, Finance Director Steve Neaman said. The district spent about $1.3 million on contractual obligations to the Fort Sheridan project.
The Lake County Forest Preserve District also operates Countryside, Brae Loch and ThunderHawk golf courses. All but Brae Loch turned a profit last year. "Without that Fort Sheridan hit we would have had a profit in the golf budget," Neaman said. "But we're not immune to some of the usual suspects in the decline of golf overall industrywide."
Arlington Heights Park District taxpayers lost nearly $300,000 in both 2011 and 2012 on operations of the Arlington Lakes and Nickol Knoll golf courses. The district projected a loss of more than $140,000 in 2013, but it turned a profit in 2014 of $14,302, Executive Director Steve Scholten said. Only Arlington Lakes was profitable this year, but despite the continued losses there are no plans to shutter one or both of the courses.
"The (district) has worked hard to maintain a high level of customer satisfaction while being as efficient as possible in controlling expenses," Scholten said. "Close to 60,000 rounds of golf were played at these facilities (in 2014), which speaks to importance that the community places on having a golf course be a part of our community."
Even public golf facilities that are turning a profit are burdened by debt that was incurred to make the course more attractive to visitors. Wheaton Park District's Arrowhead Golf Course projected a $641,210 profit in 2013. But Executive Director Mike Benard noted the district pays $900,000 a year on a loan taken out in the early 2000s to refurbish the facility.
"There are a lot of things going our way, but that's not to minimize the accomplishments of the staff over there," Benard said. "The facility is relatively new and opened for business as a rebuild in 2006."
For many courses like Arrowhead, restaurant and banquet sales -- not golf -- are the main economic engines these days.
"We wanted food and beverage to be just as profitable as golf, but now they're outpacing it," Benard said.
Several government-owned courses have been turned over to a management company in exchange for some revenue sharing. Kane County Forest Preserve District officials hired a company to manage its courses and have settled for a minimum $380,000 a year from operations at those three courses. Something is better than nothing, said Ken Stanish, the district's finance director.
Whether public or private, no golf course is immune to the downturn in the industry, the Illinois PGA's Miller said. Some golfers are giving up memberships in exclusive private clubs because they can find cheaper rates at publicly owned courses, he said. But public course operators still have to lower their fees to attract the increasingly elusive golfer.
"It's a golfer's market," Miller said. "There are a core group of enthusiasts still playing, but they're getting more conscious of what they're spending their money on and where they're spending their money at."
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Golfing in the redHere's a look at the estimated or actual losses of some publicly owned suburban golf courses in 2013.
Lake County Forest Preserve: $1,073,977
Bensenville Park District: $460,000
Arlington Heights Park District: $141,712
DuPage Airport Authority: $134,341
Village of Glendale Heights: $111,940
Village of Bartlett: $74,390
Source: Government agencies' budget documents