Governmental Affairs: Whither Municipal Golf
“Existential” is a word thrown around with impunity. It’s used to describe challenges of all sorts, many of them minor in nature, but in its generic form, “existential” is nothing more than the adjective form of existence. And it really should only be used to describe something that goes to the very nature of the existence of the object it describes.
When the subject is golf, it properly applies to only one aspect of the game. Not any piece or combination of pieces of legislation; not any regulation
or combination of regulations; not any wage/price distention; not any cost/benefit distention; not any environmental criticism; nor any of the myriad legal, regulatory and public policy challenges we address every day. Yes; these are quite vexing problems! But none of them rises to the level of threatening the existence of the game.
One and only one challenge rises to the level meriting the description, “existential challenge.” And that challenge is the feeding frenzy on the game’s municipal sector. The utility if not the very legitimacy of devoting 100-plus acres of green space in the urban cores where America’s affluent populations live, work and recreate is under attack from all quarters — from open space advocates, enthusiasts of other sports (e.g., soccer, baseball, tennis, pickleball), affordable housing advocates, homeless sheltering advocates, “higher and better” uses (e.g., commercial) of public property advocates, habitat restoration advocates; there is no shortage of advocates for turning golf’s spaces into some other kinds of spaces.
Considered the following drawn from recent headlines:
▪ A major Southern California county proposes to shutter one of the two and a half golf courses in a huge regional park and calls the effort a “park expansion project.”
▪ A major Southern California county repurposes a 54-year-old golf course as a major soccer, tennis and STEM center with commercial appurtenances to support them in a region of such high golf demand in proportion to supply that local high school, community college, state university and junior developmental golf programs no longer have anywhere to conduct their activities.
▪ The Los Angeles County Grand Jury issues a massive report that suggests that municipal golf courses in “park poor” areas be repurposed to meet certain “park” needs. The City and County of Los Angeles savage the report, but it’s the Grand Jury that gets the headlines and poisons golf’s well; the counterarguments get no audience.
▪ An Assembly member floats a bill that would amend the 1971 California Park Protection Act to create an exception for municipal (parkland) golf courses for the purpose of converting them into affordable housing sites; the Assembly member’s press release refers to “these useless public golf courses in my District.”
▪ An Orange County city plans to turn its 60-year-old municipal golf course, which is by all objective measures self-support-ing, into a massive commercial project, its city manager proudly proclaiming in the media that a golf course’s returns are paltry compared to what he has in mind. The project has run into some legal trou-bles with the Park Protection Act and the Surplus Land Act, as well as objections from the local citizenry, but it’s notewor-thy that this city has no plans to commer-cialize any of its other parks.
▪ Upon hearing a consultant inform him that his city’s two municipal golf courses are returning monies to the city’s general fund after accounting for all expenses — operational, capital replacement and debt service — the mayor questions whether the net return to the city is enough to continue operation, despite being informed at the same time that these two golf courses are the ONLY city park operations that actually turn a profit.
▪ A university converts a 55-year-old nine-hole public golf course into a massively expensive habitat restoration project using public dollars to complete the project and more dollars to manage it upon completion.
▪ A Northern California county proposes to purchase a daily fee golf course based upon a commercial use valuation assessment only to turn around and expend additional public dollars to turn it into open space.
▪ A Central California city closes its flagship municipal course (1921) after three years of deficit operation in favor of a repurposing project that in its first year will dwarf all three of those deficits combined.
▪ The mayor of a Los Angeles County city seeks to acquire a Los Angeles County nine-hole facility of limited but still measurable financial value to transform it at huge public expense into a passive park requiring annual infusions of taxpayer dollars.
WHITHER MUNICIPAL GOLF? WELL, THAT DEPENDS ON WHETHER GOLF’S LEADERSHIP ORGANIZATIONS CAN GET THEIR ACT TOGETHER BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.”
This is a partial list. The headlines are chock-full of stories that reflect an anti-golf animus that grows with each passing day. Golf is adjudged by a different standard than every other park activity as well as every other open space or land conservancy activity, and it is increasingly a standard that is more than just impossible to meet. It’s not really a standard; it’s a road map for excision from urban life.
For the bulk of the game’s history, publicly owned parkland golf courses were subsidized by general fund expenditures. They were built entirely by public monies and for decades sustained more by continuing outlays of public monies than by user fees — fees not set by the market but rather by governments’ commitment to making golf available to everyone, not just the most affluent among us.
Municipal golf courses were advocated by none other than Presidents of the United States. Two months after taking the Oath of Office, William Howard Taft penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in support of a D.C. municipal golf system for “those who cannot afford to develop country clubs.” The municipal golf movement was an integral part of the conservation and parks movements that characterized the “progressive era” of the opening decades of the 20th Century.
However, once identified as a public amenity to be financed in small part by user fees but in larger part by general tax revenues, municipal golf courses were transformed into cash cows. Municipalities, some of which had continued to provide the service through public employees but many more of which had begun to provide the service through private management firms, began thinking of themselves less as providers of public services than members of a rentier class entitled to large returns on a nest egg for which they no longer expended much if any effort.
Once that happened, municipal golf courses were expected to continue delivering net revenues to their parkland systems, and once that expectation was no longer being met, the same governments that in previous generations understood their obligation as subsidizing golf in the public interest began to understand their obligation as converting courses to uses more amenable to generalized access.
From amenity to cash cow to oblivion, and with it the engine that drove the game’s growth. If that doesn’t qualify as an “existential challenge,” nothing does. Whither municipal golf? Well, that depends on whether golf’s leadership organizations can get their act together before it’s too late.