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:
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?