Great Falls Golf Courses – On Par?

Golf is a valued recreational activity in Great Falls, however, some are now voicing concerns regarding the long term sustainability of two municipal golf courses in Great Falls and the Park and Recreation Department’s ability to continue to operate them.

The City of Great Falls is responsible for Anaconda Hills and Eagle Falls golf courses. Unfortunately, the golf course fund is $1,199,882 in the red as of December 2017 and according to Finance Director Melissa Kinzler, the debt gets worse every year.

From the February 6, 2018, city commission work session:

“Director Kinzler reported that the golf course ending fund balance is negative $1,199,882 as of December 31, 2017. She explained that the revenues are less, which may be due to weather; however, it still has the full time expenses of staff. The cash balance gets worse every year, as well as an increase with the intercap interest.”

Apparently, city golf course operations were shored up by the city’s general fund for a number of years, as noted in the city commission’s work session notes, dated February 2, 2016:

Director Kinzler reported that the last debt service payment was made in September for the golf courses. Manager Doyon commented that the consultant will touch on whether or not the City should have two golf courses in the Park & Recreation Master Plan. Just because the debt service is relieved, the golf courses still owe the general fund a significant amount of money.”

Despite the debt service retirement in 2016, it seems the city still has a financial situation on its hands with the golf fund’s negative balance of over a million dollars. At least one city official would like to see the city take a different approach in running the municipal golf courses.

“City Manager Greg Doyon expressed concern with regard to resolving the golf course debt. He commented that the golf course fund needs to be operated like a business. If it can’t be sustained, other areas in Park and Recreation, as well as the flexibility of the General Fund that could address other priorities, would be affected.”  February 6, 2018, city commission work session.”

Yes, it appears we have a problem with the city-run golf courses’ financials. But Great Falls is far from alone in its municipal golf woes. A quick search online shows many communities across the country are dealing with the dilemma. For example, Duluth, Minnesota is one community facing financial difficulties with its courses:

Duluth Looking for Solutions to Public Golf Troubles

Participation in golf has been in decline for almost a decade. The Great Falls Parks and Recreation Master Plan, October 2016 (Master Plan), includes statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Sports, Fitness & Recreational Activities Topline Participation Report 2016, which notes that golf participation nationally has decreased  7.7% from 2010-2015.

An online search of golf statistics will back up that truth—golf as a leisure activity is declining in popularity. Factors leading to the decline have been noted in a variety of online news articles and golf industry research and include millennials lack of interest in golf, time constraints with current golfers and cost of play.

Great Falls is above the national average for the number of municipal golf courses per population, according to the Master Plan. The Master Plan used recreational industry service standards to compare to current Great Falls park amenities. The standards recommend one municipal golf course per 50,000 population. Great Falls has one course per 29,491 population.

“Great Falls is above the national average for the number of municipal golf courses per population, according to the Master Plan. The Master Plan used recreational industry service standards to compare to current Great Falls park amenities. The standards recommend one municipal golf course per 50,000 population. Great Falls has one course per 29,491 population.”

According to the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, Great Falls needs to answer the question of whether or not the golf courses should be subsidized. The Master Plan also raises some doubts about the city’s ability to sustain two courses:

“Golf is highly valued in the community, however, questions arose regarding the long term sustainability of the department’s ability to operate two, eighteen-hole golf courses.”

Highly valued might be a bit of an overstatement. The Great Falls parks survey showed that only 16% of the respondents listed golf as one of their top four recreational choices in Great Falls. The top valued recreational choice for Great Falls was trails, at 48%.

Great Falls needs a solution to its golf dilemma. Continued “mulligans” from the general fund aren’t the answer. I would tend to agree with Doyon, the courses should be run more like a business. What does a business sometimes do when it can no longer operate all of its facilities? It makes the tough decision to shut some of them down.

So then, should the city consider doing the same?

 

 

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Jeni Dodd
Jeni Dodd is a creative, multi-faceted, multi-talented, knowledge junkie. She currently utilizes her skills in a variety of business and artistic endeavors. Liberty, integrity, truth and critical thinking are among her most important precepts.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Here’s a novel concept, and one that escapes the uniformly liberal, rubber-stamping politicians on the City Commission: inelastic demand matters. While nice enough golf courses, Eagle Falls and Anaconda aren’t Augusta National or Pebble Beach. Talk to Great Falls golfers. When they feel priced out, they move down the road to … you guessed it … Hickory Swing!

    Hickory’s renaissance is two-fold. It is due in large part to the great Billy Thompson turning the course around, but also, talk to some of the folks who work there … they know the score. Whenever the City hikes up greens fees, golfers jump, and the Hickory folks know this. Best of all for them: they don’t have to do anything! All they have to do is let the “thinkers” on the Commission beat on with their usual tax-and-spend affirmation of the latest vacuous Staff report.

    Anyone in the Commission chambers ever hear of a promotion?

  2. Oh, and by the way, Bill Bronson has a degree in Economics. Do you think Bill ever mentions the possibility that consumer choice should be a factor in the City’s decision making?

    He is smarter than all of us, after all …

  3. Resolution 10216 establishing the municipal golf course fees was passed at the December 5, 2017 city commission meeting. I forgot to include this link to the GF Muni Golf Course Fees:
    https://greatfallsmt.net/sites/default/files/fileattachments/park_and_recreation/page/29971/golf_fees_2018.pdf

    And here’s the link to Hickory Swing fees for comparison:
    http://hickoryswinggolf.com/hickorygolfcourse_005.htm

    I find it interesting that a PRIVATE golf course has cheaper fees than a PUBLICLY-SUBSIDIZED municipal golf course. How does that make sense?

  4. Jeni Dodd said:
    I find it interesting that a PRIVATE golf course has cheaper fees than a PUBLICLY-SUBSIDIZED municipal golf course. How does that make sense?

    It’s a different type of course. It’s an Executive course which is shorter than a regulation course and plays faster as it is a lower par than the standard par 36 regulation courses. As such, the fees are less and the manpower needed to run it and maintain it are less.

    To compare an executive course to a regulation course is very akin to comparing a kumquat and a tangerine. They’re both citrus fruits but still quite different.

    Should the city be running 2 courses? Probably not but who is going to come in and buy one of them?

    • That’s smart for Hickory Swing. An executive course is a time saver as you’ve mentioned, and one of the reasons cited for decline of golf is that folks can’t seem to find the time to play 18 holes of a regular course. So kudos to Hickory Swing for figuring that out.

      I’ve always wondered why the city won’t allow cross-country skiers on the courses, especially winters like this when there’s enough snow so that there’d be no damage to the courses. I’ve asked about it in the past but as far as I know they still don’t allow it. I think that would be a popular use and heck, the city could even charge a small fee for it.

      • I’m no golfer, but it looks like the folks running Hickory Swing have a great understanding of market forces and how to position themselves. Cheaper prices mean more people, hence more money to maintain the course. It’s better to have more people paying less than less people paying more.

    • Rick- the comparison isn’t as unreasonable as you suggest if the loss for city courses is factored in. Should green fees be the same? No, but they shouldn’t be double either, the city needs to add the subsidy per fee in before making a comparison.

      I wonder if any of the changes from the golf course study the city paid for over 10 years ago were ever implemented. It said there were city accounting practices that over burdened the courses pushing them deceptively in the red and that it appeared there was a lot of internal theft from staff. It also said the pro was paid/compensated well beyond what’s reasonable.

      Also, from working fundraising tournaments at hickory and Eagle Falls, the experience is way better with the staff at Hickory Swing. For one tournament I was involved, we actually had to pay a fee to the pro shop for sales they thought they wouldn’t make if we bought the whole course for the day of tournament. The forced cash donation to the pro felt like extortion and forever biased future venue decisions toward Hickory Swing.

  5. Jeni, Emerald greens was an executive golf course prior to becoming Hickory Swing so there was nothing to to “figure out”. Billy Thompson and the folks who hired him deserve the credit for every thing else good at the course. Also they have allowed skiers on the public courses, Anaconda had a donation box at the trail head and to my knowledge no monies have ever found it’s way into it. Years with snow like this are rare and skiers will do damage.

    RJ, The internal theft mentioned in the study had nothing to do with the public course grounds staff. It was all pro shop and concessions, and don’t forget Director Sullivan and a Parks supervisor were caught stealing from the courses. It might interest you the last certified golf superintendent hired by the city had a felony conviction for selling drugs. He also has been charged with a couple more felonies since. The head of Human Resources at the time has had her own drug problems .

    A voter, I worked with Billy Thompson he is great.

    • Bill- You are correct about the theft. I didn’t mean to imply that the grounds staff were involved. If memory serves the apparent theft involved tens of thousands in cart trail fees and season passes that were unaccounted for in receipts verse expected sales. The report also said the concessions ran at a loss most years so that the vendor with the contract paid very little to the city for the privilege of serving the course. The report questioned why the concessionaire would keep coming back if their reported income was as low as they claimed.

      The point I was trying to make is it is hard to make a decision on the viability of the courses, if they are run poorly and the city accounting is manipulated by deceptively burdening the courses with administrative overhead that wouldn’t go away if the courses did.

  6. Bill–Thanks for the information. I hadn’t heard that skiers were allowed. When I contacted the muni courses years ago about cross-country skiing (in a year when there was plenty of snow), I was told that no, skiers were not allowed. But of course, you’re right about the snow; some years it wouldn’t be prudent to allow skiers because of course damage.

    RJ–I haven’t heard about the “city accounting practices that over burdened the courses pushing them deceptively in the red.” Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I’ll have to do some further investigation on it.

  7. Jenni Dodd

    I just read the the course maintenance proposals submitted by CourseCo and the Voyagers. I got a kick out of the ball clubs plan, I wonder if the staff at Kentucky Fried would be encouraged now to submit one of their own. The concessions part looked good. Mowing the greens every other day? They don’t know what they don’t know.

    CourseCo’s maintenance plan is pretty much the same as what is currently being done at the two courses but the staffing is quite a bit different. I doubt if the four full time maintenance employees currently working will join up with CourseCo, I think they will move on to other jobs with the City because the pay and benefits are better. I wonder if I’m the only person that noticed CourseCo has a plan for maintaining the Bermuda grasses on the courses? They mention their experience with cool season grasses but Bermuda grass stops growing at 60 degrees and goes dormant at 50. If there is really is Bermuda grass then July might still be too cold here. I wonder why an outfit like CourseCo with all their expertise would mess that up.
    I wish everyone involved good luck.

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