A steep decline in the number of golfers is putting municipal courses and their government owners deep in the hole when they can least afford it.
An enthusiastic five-year-old Jack Knoll ran to a golf cart after he finished putting on the fifth hole of the executive 9 hole golf course at at Inver Wood Golf Course in Inver Grove Heights. Jack's father, Karry, is putting at right.
Municipal golf courses, until recently a source of profit, are suddenly driving suburbs deep into the rough.
The number of rounds played is plummeting. Black ink is turning red. And the courses, which cities and counties built as amenities for their residents, are turning into burdens.
Some places are being hit much worse than others. West St. Paul has seen a drop of 48 percent in rounds played since the decade opened. Inver Grove Heights has watched a half-million-dollar annual surplus sour into a nearly $200,000 loss, in an era when nearby cities are talking about turning off computers at night or creating cookbooks to help save a counter clerk's job.
"Golf," said Greg Mack, parks director for Ramsey County, "is not booming by any means."
The Star Tribune requested bottom-line numbers from a sample of 13 cities and one county in the metro area, representing a range of circumstances: poorer and richer, newer and older, bigger and smaller, premium and value-priced.
• Almost all have seen a gradual but substantial decline in rounds sold, most in the range of 25 to 35 percent over 10 years. That's a far steeper dive than the industry has seen nationally or in the Upper Midwest, according to the National Golf Foundation.
• All of them were turning a surplus a decade ago, but today almost all of the suburbs are losing money.
Collectively, when each is traced from its own peak to the present day, they are selling about 300,000 fewer rounds and earning nearly $6 million less per year.
The losses are occurring even as cities' lobbyists plead poverty. The League of Minnesota Cities will soon release a report outlining what it calls "overwhelming concern for [cities'] continued ability to adequately fund basic services."
The scramble to stop the bleeding on the golf course is causing cities to discard long-held taboos. Edina and Bloomington are letting nonresidents golf as cheaply as folks who live there. Inver Grove Heights is considering selling off 15 acres adjacent to its courses. Apple Valley has gradually ratcheted up the strength of the booze sold in the clubhouse, from 3.2 beer to strong beer to hard liquor.
The increasingly worrisome facts about public courses are typically far from the taxpayers' view, buried deep in documents that can run to well over 100 pages of data.
But if the average citizen isn't following the numbers, city officials say they are.
"We're keepin' an eye on it," said Jim White, the mayor of Orono, whose course has sunk from a $43,000 surplus in 1998 to a $71,000 loss in 2008. "Nobody likes a deficit. We are asking our city administrator for thoughts on what to do."
Underscoring the political sensitivity of the situation, Roseville's finance director, Christopher Miller, stresses that even though a late-'90s annual surplus has vanished, to be replaced by year after year of modest deficits, golf "does not use any property taxes." Rather, he said, a cushion of previous golf surpluses is carrying the city through.
Still, Roseville did seek federal stimulus funds to build itself a new golf clubhouse -- a reminder that for cities, when it comes to golf, even a too-small surplus may not suffice. To truly be self-sufficient, golf courses need to earn enough profits to keep their facilities current. In Apple Valley, for instance, the city balked at building a new clubhouse, even though the existing one is in rough shape.
Nice view, lots of room
John Ferguson got a breathtaking view one sunny day recently from the second-highest point in Dakota County as he approached the 12th tee at the Inver Wood Golf Course in Inver Grove Heights, overlooking a 100-foot drop to the green.
"It's nice and quiet out here with the wildlife," the retired 79-year-old said. "It's beautiful."
Ferguson didn't have to wait for anyone ahead of him, something that has changed over the years. The 70,000 rounds a year being played 10 years ago have dropped to 46,000.
On a warm, sunny day last week, few were on the course, and many who were could be found taking shots at the executive nine-hole course or driving range. Most of those playing were seniors, at a discounted rate. Two of the golfers, including Ferguson, were seasonal workers for the course.
Todd Warren, a golfer of some 20 years, said he occasionally drops in at Inver Wood to play a round or hit some balls at the range because it is close to work. "Prices have been increasing," he said. "I think that some courses are really overpriced, especially for the maintenance and quality."
Al McMurchie, Inver Grove golf manager and golf course management consultant, said a number of factors have led to the decline in rounds. An oversupply of golf courses. A decline in corporate golf, made worse by today's economy. Weather that hasn't been as favorable. And an aging population, resulting in more discounted rounds.
But he is optimistic for a rebound. "Golf courses are a good investment in the long term," he said, "and will generate some positive income going forward. Not to mention the green space, environmental benefits, recreational asset and more."
What lies ahead?
But is golf merely suffering a temporary lull? It doesn't look that way from the steady long-term decline in rounds.
And there's another ominous sign: Many forms of outdoor recreation are in decline, a problem that may have to do with fundamental changes in the nature of the state's population. Hennepin County parks analysts point to state surveys showing that hunting and other activities are also falling off.
They point in part to demographics. The sort of person who grew up with golf is passing from the scene and being replaced by folks from other cultural backgrounds.
Golf enthusiasts argue that a certain degree of subsidy for golf shouldn't be a scandal. Other city functions don't pay for themselves. Burnsville's ice arena, victim of the same sorts of demographic trends as golf, is losing a lot more money than its golf course. Suburban water parks face similar challenges.
But fiscal hawks say the more basic point is transparency: the ability of citizens in a democracy to learn what's happening with their money -- and what tradeoffs are quietly being made.
While most cities do have golf course finances on their websites, most tuck them deep into dense documents. The facts about Burnsville golf, for instance, can be found online, but on pages 82 and 118 of a 122-page financial report.
Annette Meeks, a Republican activist and Metropolitan Council member, aims to change that by putting cities' financials online sometime this spring in a much more usable way.
Her Freedom Foundation of Minnesota is gunning in part for what she calls "municipal golf courses and other nonessential spending conducted by various cities throughout Minnesota."
firstname.lastname@example.org • 952-882-9023 Vadim Lavrusik is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.