A nationwide search will be launched this week for private firms to operate the city of Wichita’s five golf courses.
In the wake of a 16 percent increase in revenue and a 14 percent increase in rounds this summer under retooled city management, however, it’s hardly certain that the operations and maintenance of the courses will be privatized.
The Wichita City Council on Tuesday approved a request for private proposals to operate Auburn Hills, Tex Consolver, L.W. Clapp, MacDonald and Sim.
But instead of a firm commitment to privatize the courses, the council wants to weigh the private proposals against a surprisingly strong summer 2012 before deciding the future of the financially struggling courses.
“It’s been nearly a year in the making since we went out to the public for input on the management of the golf courses,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “I think we should continue with the (request for proposals) because I don’t know how we can truly evaluate the management of the courses without looking at the process. To stop this in the middle of the process is a discredit to the year’s worth of work.”
Bryan Frye, president of the city’s board of park commissioners and a representative on the council’s golf advisory committee, said the private proposals will be weighed, followed by a presentation by city staff on the performance of 2012 operations changes at the courses, changes which have revitalized use and revenue.
Firms responding to the request for proposals will be evaluated and interviewed in early November, with a recommendation to the park board and council later that month.
“We think it’s important to see what the private sector can offer our golf system,” Frye said.
The city’s golf program has been unable to meet its debt obligations since 2004, which led City Manager Robert Layton to propose closing a course last year. The courses have been profitable, but haven’t made enough to pay debt obligations, which center on a $3 million balance from a golf revenue bond to build the city’s newest course, Auburn Hills, in 2001.
But city staff reported Tuesday that changes in customer service policies, improved advertising and rate changes have revitalized the courses’ balance sheets under city management.
According to city documents, the number of rounds played at the city courses spiked by more than 16,000 this summer at 133,129, just short of 2009 course use levels and consistent with several recorded years dating back to 2003.
Projected net income for the courses is almost $800,000 this year, more than double the $325,945 of 2011 and again the highest figure since 2009.
Council members also received a pessimistic account of golf course privatization around the region.
Based on a study by city staff, cities that privatize public courses are plagued by high utility bills, high capital improvements and maintenance costs on top of the management fee, and long-term contracts with under-performing vendors.
Some of the courses studied included Woodward, Okla., where the city spends between $11,000 and $15,000 per month to subsidize irrigation at one course for its private manager; Neosho, Mo., where nine of the city’s 27 holes have been closed to cover debt service on a $3.4 million bonded renovation program; and numerous cases where private managers defaulted on their contracts or lost money.
“With private proposals in hand, we can evaluate against the public management that’s been done to shore up the courses,” Frye said. “Once that evaluation has been done, we can make a recommendation to you all on how to proceed.”