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After successful summer, city weighs future of public golf courses

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, at 7:54 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 10:51 a.m.

In about seven weeks, Wichita’s golfers should know a lot more about the future of the city’s five public golf courses.

City officials today aren’t sure what’s next as they sort through private candidates to run the courses and reflect on a summer 2012 season that went better than expected under retooled city management.

The city’s golf committee is wrapping up interviews with prospective private operators, and a recommendation on a course manager will be made to the City Council by the end of the year. The city operates Auburn Hills, Tex Consolver, L.W. Clapp, MacDonald and Sim Park golf courses.

A year ago, City Manager Robert Layton said privatization was one solution for a golf program beset with financial problems and unable to meet its debt obligations since 2004. But a strong summer 2012 at the city’s courses has complicated the decision, with revenues up 16 percent and rounds up 14 percent.

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 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.

“Certainly, we’re very pleased with how the summer went,” Layton said. “The bar that any private firms will have to meet to land the contract to run our courses is certainly higher than it was.”

Bryan Frye, president of the city’s board of park commissioners and a representative on the council’s golf advisory committee, said a renewed emphasis on customer service, marketing and updated rates produced a strong financial summer.

“He’s entirely correct,” Frye said about Layton’s comment. “The bar is certainly much higher than it was in 2010 or 2011.”

The higher bar is justified, said Wichita resident Dick Sanders, who regularly plays the city’s golf courses. He said the changes made by the city and the park board have improved the public golfing experience.

“Much better this summer,” he said. “The people you dealt with at the golf courses became much more friendly.

“It wasn’t like they were doing you a favor by taking your money, and that’s the way it used to be at several of the courses. That all changed after the city began holding meetings on the courses a year or so ago.”

Frye said his board is happy with the increases in revenues and rounds.

“The public management side of the operation was challenged to improve, and they have,” he said. “We’ve been able to really mobilize under this different model, and the numbers have been fantastic.”

Is privatization necessary?

The financial woes of the course system led Layton to propose closing a course last year. The courses have been profitable but not enough to pay debt, most notably a $3 million balance from a golf revenue bond to build the city’s newest course, Auburn Hills, in 2001.

The successes this year under retooled city management have officials wondering whether privatization is necessary.

“To pay an outside company takes numbers (money) from paying the debt,” Frye said.

“We were blessed with fantastic weather. Our drive to tell people they need to play the Wichita courses caught on with the community. Public advertising worked. We got the staff energized, and we were able to operate in a much better way. It just clicked with the people.”

The city’s revenue and round numbers are good, but they’re not out of line with what the rest of the state experienced in a good weather summer following an unusually mild winter, according to statistics from the National Golf Course Owners Association.

In Kansas, revenue and rounds were both up 15.2 percent this year, said Chris Tuohey, general manager of the publicly owned Sand Creek Station course in Newton.

Another possible obstacle to privatization is a 2011 city study showing that privatized courses are plagued by high utility bills, high capital improvements and maintenance costs on top of the management fee, and long-term contracts with underperforming managers.

Some of the courses studied were 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.

Council member Jeff Longwell, one of the drivers to examine golf course privatization, praised the changes the city made and the results this summer. But he said he wants to thoroughly review the privatization study before making a decision.

“I’d hate to analyze the merits of privatization based on one summer of working out the customer-service issues,” he said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with how efficiently we can operate courses.

“I’m thrilled we’ve worked out the customer-service issues and there’s more we can do, but we need to let the process work its way through.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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