Golf Revenues Remain On Downward Trajectory, Raising Questions About Sustainability

A new report on Seattle’s municipal golf courses by three consultants (Lund, Scanlan, and Cocker Fennessy) concludes that none of the city-owned golf courses—Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Interbay, and West Seattle—is sustainable without ongoing subsidies, and that all four courses have significant deferred maintenance needs, totaling more than $36 million. Under each of four scenarios the consultants considered, the golf courses, which collectively occupy 528 acres of city-owned land, will continue to lose money—between $4.1 million to $8.4 million a year by 2027. In 2017, the city spent about $8.4 million to operate and maintain the courses, or about 54 percent of their total cost (the rest is funded through fees, merchandise, and restaurant sales.) The city paid just over $104,000 for the study.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the city will analyze “long-term models to see the financial sustainability of the courses.” At the same time, she said, the Parks Department, “working with other departments, will also begin to explore a range of potential options for these City-owned properties, which could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space, or creating affordable commercial space and housing.”

Since 2006, city policy has called for the golf courses to be self-sufficient, paying for all their own capital and operating costs and contributing 3.5 percent of their revenues—later increased to 5 percent—to the city’s Park Fund.

The report lays out a number of financial options to reduce the golf courses’ losses. They include: Reducing or eliminating the golf program’s ongoing contributions to the city’s Park Fund; increasing user fees; and farming out maintenance to a private vendor, which would reduce labor costs. Two of the four scenarios in the report also involve issuing bonds to pay for deferred maintenance, which would add annual debt service of up to $3.3 million a year to the cost of the program. The argument for doing this work now, according to the report, is that improving the courses and making them safer will make them more popular with golfers; for example, the nets at the Interbay driving range are too low for people to use clubs with long-ball flights, because of the risk of balls flying into the nearby Seattle Pacific University playing fields. “This is a significant safety liability and also a lost revenue opportunity,” the report says.

Promising projection or misguided optimism? Report predicts a total reversal of the trend of declining interest in golf.

Last year, the city budget moved about half a million dollars from the parks department into the city’s capital budget to help keep the golf courses afloat. At the time, budget director Ben Noble suggested that one reason for shrinking golf revenues is that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” The report released last week affirms this conclusion—showing that the total number of rounds declined from 242,868 in 2013 to 206,010 in 2017, and that in the Seattle metropolitan area, golfers play about 12 percent fewer rounds per capita than the national average. (Jackson Park, in North Seattle, and Jefferson Park, on Beacon Hill, both had about 22 percent fewer rounds in 2017 than in 2013.)  According to a 2017 survey by EMC Research, about 13 percent of Seattle residents use the golf courses at least twice a year; in that same survey, however, respondents overwhelmingly named golf as their lowest parks spending priority.

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In spite of the downward trend in golfing in Seattle, the report projects that golf rounds will rebound dramatically between 2019 and 2020, spiking 4 percent “when full course play resumes at Jefferson following capital improvements to repair damaged holes.” Overall, the report projects that the number of rounds played will increase, on average, increase 1 percent a year between now and 2027.

The report, which includes comments from a list of 60-plus “stakeholder” in the golfing community, acknowledges that golf is widely considered an “elitist” sport, but attributes this to the fact that private golf courses and country clubs are expensive and exclusive. “If the City does not offer golf as a recreational opportunity, golf will indeed be limited to only those who can afford private or privately-owned public courses where fees are substantially higher than those charged at the City’s four municipal golf courses. In addition to direct cost of fees, players would need to travel outside of the City to find a course.”

These numbers, which use widely varying age ranges, indicate that the only course where a majority of patrons are under 50 is the Interbay Golf Center, which has a 9-hole course, a driving range, and a mini-golf course.

One reason for the perception that golf is elitist and expensive that the report does not mention is that although it is—as the report puts it—”open to all,” golfers must either invest in and transport their own equipment or rent it on-site, which adds significant costs—golf clubs, for example, cost $20 a round. That’s on top of fees of $33.75 per round for adults ($38 on weekends). The report recommends that the city consider a new fee for a maintenance fund at each golf course, while noting that raising fees “runs counter to providing access to lower income people,” and that the more discount programs the golf courses offer to schools, youth groups, and off-peak players, the more revenue they lose.

The city has limited demographic information about who uses its golf courses. They do know that the participation rate among women, at 10-17 percent, is lower than the national average of 24 percent, and that participation among people under 50 is well below 50 percent at all of the 18-hole courses. At the Interbay Golf Center, which has 9 holes and includes a driving range and mini-golf course, 53 percent of patrons are under 50.  According to the report, however, “There is no data available regarding minority participation rates at Seattle public golf courses.” The report suggests increasing marketing to women and people of color, tracking golfer demographics, and “enhanc[ing] the clubhouse experience to be welcoming to all, including non-golfers.”

Golf in Seattle remains an overwhelmingly male sport.

Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least one of the city’s golf courses and using the land to develop new affordable housing. Last year, then-parks director Christopher Williams said, “Maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” Another potential obstacle to the affordable-housing plan is that golf courses count as part of the city’s public green space, so that closing even the smallest golf course, the Interbay Golf Center, would represent a loss of 52 acres of “public” parkland.

Durkan’s office says they’re open to the idea. “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”