December 13, 2011

Park Board presents City Council plan to keep public golf courses open

The city of Wichita could keep its public golf courses open under recommendations presented Tuesday morning by the park board.

The city of Wichita could keep its public golf courses open under recommendations presented Tuesday morning by the park board.

City Council members, who heard the plan at a workshop following their regular meeting, said they wanted to get more public feedback on the proposal before making a final plan. Keeping all the courses open would mean raising fees, a move the park board said golfers support.

At least one council member wanted to continue to explore the options of having the courses managed by a private company.

The city golf program has been unable to meet its debt obligations since 2004, leading City Manager Robert Layton to suggest closing one of the golf courses.

That teed off local golfers, who have already voiced their opinions in public meetings, written or called city officials, members of the Wichita Park Board and posted their opinions in online forums.

“This is about the toughest issue I’ve ever dealt with in the city,” said Randy Brown, a park board member who has also served on the library board.

Hundreds attended public meetings at three courses in August.

“The one thing folks did not want to do is close a golf course,” Brown said. “They were willing to do other things.”

Raising fees is one answer to save a public golf program projected to be $6 million in debt by 2020. One idea the park board suggested would be raising greens fees by $2 next year and $1 each year until 2014.

Most of the financial strain on the public courses comes from a $3.12 million debt, stemming from construction of Auburn Hills County Club, which was completed in 2000.

That debt has scared off interest from private management companies, a move favored by council member Jeff Longwell.

Longwell pointed out that the city has saved millions of dollars by outsourcing printing and mowing services.

But two local and two national management companies said they weren’t interested in Wichita, because of the Auburn Hills debt. The city would have to absorb that, costing taxpayers even more. Right now, golf operations are self-supporting. The courses make money — $180,000 in 2010 — but not enough to meet the debt.

“I’d take over the Wichita golf operations tomorrow, if you’d forgive the debt,” Brown said.

City golf courses face another nearly $4 million in debts from planned capital improvement projects.

Those projects could be cut, Brown said, to $1.1 million, after hearing golfers say they would rather money be used to keep the courses open, rather than building new club houses.

Doug Kupper, Parks and Recreation director, told the council most of those improvements could be paid for by reducing a budget for Plainview Park. Those plans are not set for completion until 2017.

“We think we have ample time to deal with that concern,” Kupper said. “We don’t think that will be a hardship concern.”

Brown said more efficient marketing would seek to raise participation by 2 percent. Golfers played 165,000 rounds last year. But Brown said the park board learned many Wichita golfers don’t realize that a season pass entitles them to play at any of the city’s five courses with reduced green fees.

“We need to create a brand for city golf courses to compete for the entertainment dollar,” Brown said. “Right now, we have none.”

Mayor Carl Brewer, Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams and council member Janet Miller said they wanted to present the proposals for public review at district advisory board meetings in the coming month, before pursuing the park board’s recommendations.

The council also is considering a task force to study private management of the courses in the future.

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