At Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley, a section of the parking lot will become a lawn-bowling green.
At Valleywood in Apple Valley, the winter season of concerts at the new clubhouse is ready to give way to tournament banquets.
And in Brooklyn Park, an ambitious makeover of the prestigious but outdated Edinburgh USA course is about to begin, three holes at time.
With golf season beginning, municipal courses keep looking for ways to offset the ongoing decline in the sport while hoping to recover from a dismal 2013 season, when a late spring put them in a deep bunker. The courses’ final financial results from 2013 aren’t in yet, but most in the metro area believe they did worse than 2012.
“A couple bad years in a row would be devastating to some,” said Tom Ryan, who heads the Minnesota Golf Association.
Even ideal conditions two years ago weren’t enough to keep most municipal courses out of the rough. Just four of 17 in the metro area had operating profits in 2012, according to the latest report on city finances by the State Auditor. Several had to tap other city operations for funding. Only one — Golden Valley’s Brookview — transferred money into its city’s general fund in 2012, according to the auditor’s report.
“The days of maintaining a facility and just hoping people would show up are long gone,” said Ben Disch, Golden Valley’s golf operations manager. Except for a sharp drop last year, the number of rounds played at Brookview has stayed relatively flat in recent years at about 40,000. “But in the late ’90s, we were doing 54,000,” he said. “That just shows you how things have changed.”
That’s giving rise to some ideas that might have seemed crazy in the past, such as the addition of “footgolf,” in which players kick soccer balls from hole to hole, at Hyland Greens in Bloomington this year. Other courses, including two in Minneapolis, have added disc golf courses alongside their traditional golf fairways to generate more traffic.
The idea to add lawn bowling at Brookview came from the city’s new park and recreation director but was quickly embraced by the golf staff, Disch said. They sought advice from managers at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis, which has a rooftop lawn bowling green.
“If you’re not going to grow rounds of golf, you’re going to have to produce revenue in different ways,” Disch said.
The financial pressures on municipal golf operations are putting them under closer scrutiny. Edina’s Fred Richards Golf Course will close at the end of this season so the city can continue to support its other course, Braemar. Minneapolis is considering a long-term restructuring of its seven courses. St. Paul has handed over management of two courses to a private company.
In Coon Rapids, the city has changed the way it reports the number of rounds played in a season, a key performance metric. The figure used to include estimates for tournaments, which caused the number to balloon as high as 90,000. The count now is just for actual individual rounds played, bringing it down to 64,445 in 2012, according the city’s annual report. “It was felt it was a more accurate statistic,” said Finance Director Sharon Legg.
Woodbury’s Eagle Valley Golf Course is starting the final year of a three-year turnaround plan charted by a city task force. It has exceeded the profit goals so far, said Dan Moris, head golf professional, but if the course falls short of financial goals, it could be turned over to an outside management firm, leased or even sold. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Moris said.
Last year, Brooklyn Park hired a consultant for advice on Edinburgh and the city’s nine-hole Brookland Golf Park, both of which had ongoing budget shortfalls. Like Woodbury’s, Brooklyn Park’s golf operations have been given a timetable to improve.
“We will come up with a report in the fall,” said Recreation and Parks Director Jon Oyanagi. “We’re trying to operate in the hope of turning things around, but if things aren’t going [well] we’ll consider other options, including hiring outside managers.”
Late last year, the City Council approved $3.4 million in course improvements, with $2 million directed at Edinburgh, built in the 1980s and described by the consultant as “dated … with a plethora of needless bunkers that have been obsolete with the enhancement of golf equipment.” Despite a spike in 2012, the championship course has seen rounds played slide from almost 35,000 in 2004 to about 31,000 last year.
Some work has already begun, and Edinburgh will remain open while work on greens, fairways and sand traps is done. Fees will be increased after the upgrades are completed, Oyanagi said.
Drawing new users
Apple Valley hopes the payback from its $3 million clubhouse becomes evident this year, according to Jim Zinck, manager at Valleywood. The new facility opened late in 2012, and one-time expenditures to furnish it offset revenues in 2013, he said.
The clubhouse has begun producing revenue from offseason events such as concerts, wine club meetings and private parties, including weddings. During golf season it can host larger tournament banquets.
“We see benefits in both directions — introducing ourselves to new people to come out and play and from golfers booking the clubhouse for other parties,” Zinck said.
Valleywood has been one of the municipal courses benefiting from the demise of some privately owned courses that have been bought up and turned into housing developments. Its junior league expanded last year to accommodate young golfers who had played at Parkview Golf Course in Eagan after it was sold to a large national homebuilder. A church league that had played at Parkview recently signed up to play at Valleywood this year.
Zinck has mixed feelings about the course closings. He believes they will correct the oversupply on the market but says many of those that are closing, like Parkview, are less-challenging courses that appeal to beginners.
“These are the courses that golf as a sport and an industry needs,” Zinck said. “They are the breeding grounds for new golfers.”