After several years in the financial rough, St. Paul is looking for a way to get out of the golf business — at least at two of its four city-owned courses.
The City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on a plan authorizing the Parks and Recreation Department to look for private companies interested in taking over operations of Phalen Golf Course on the city’s East Side and Como Golf Course in the North End.
The Phalen course, the city’s oldest municipal track, was built in 1917; Como in 1929.
St. Paul wouldn’t sell the golf courses, but retain ownership and lease them to private firms.
The city has two other golf courses, Highland National, opened in 1926, and its adjoining 9-hole course in the Highland Park neighborhood. Bonds that funded a $4.5 million renovation in 2005 at Highland National are still being repaid, and making a switch to a private leasing arrangement would be difficult while that financing is still in play, said Council President Kathy Lantry.
Cities across Minnesota and the nation, particularly those that jumped into the municipal golf course business when it was booming in the 1990s, are now struggling to make those once-lucrative amenities break even.
Woodbury considered plans to sell its Eagle Valley Golf Course last year, but instead laid out a three-year turnaround plan. Renville, in southern Minnesota, sold its course five years ago in the face of mounting losses, and Mounds View sold its course to Medtronic in 2005.
The popularity of golf has been steadily waning nationwide. In St. Paul, the city’s most recent survey to assess how residents value park and recreational offerings ranked golf 12th, gathering just 8 percent of the votes, with 66 percent of households saying nobody played the sport.
City Council members have been watching an alarming trend of operating losses, which will easily top $500,000 this year, and declining use of the courses for the past several years, Lantry said.
After putting St. Paul’s golf operations on a performance plan in 2010, when losses were about $245,000, the numbers are now at a tipping point.
“The problem with golf is, there are so many factors working against it being successful,” Lantry said, including a proliferation of private-run courses that can offer discounts the city can’t. “We have more courses than we have golfers, so it’s really hard to be competitive.”
An unseasonably wet and cool spring this year delayed the opening dates of golf courses by several weeks and was the final twist of the knife, she said. By the end of June, the number of rounds played at the city’s four golf courses was already down by a third — 35,700 compared with 54,400 in 2012, which had one of the best springs on record. Revenues already were off by $800,000.
“I don’t think subsidizing golf is a core function of city government,” Lantry said, particularly when recreation centers have been closing and the hours for other services such as libraries are being curtailed.
Among those watching the city’s proposal with concern is the Como Men’s Golf Club. Tom Dapper, the group’s vice president, said he has enjoyed the course as a regular since moving into the Como neighborhood 25 years ago. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the city’s plan.
“There’s a lot of strong feelings in the neighborhood, I think, about keeping it as a golf course,” he said.
Both his group and the Como Women’s Golf Club strongly opposed an idea floated by the city a couple of years ago to convert the golf course to other uses, such as disc golf, an off-leash dog area or mountain bike trails. For the regulars, Como is their first choice among courses and a familiar, friendly oasis.
“It’s a real attractive spot in the middle of town, right in the middle of a regional park,” Dapper said. “With all those mature trees, and the way the course is laid out, there’s lots of places where you can lose sight of the fact that you’re in the middle of a city.”