December 12, 2012

Committee recommends Wichita keep running its public golf courses

The fate of Wichita’s five public golf courses remains unsettled.

The fate of Wichita’s five public golf courses remains unsettled.

But the scales seemed to tip Tuesday afternoon when the City Council’s golf advisory committee recommended that the courses remain under city management for another season in what is essentially a probationary period. The recommendation comes after two years of deliberations — including discussions of privatization — about the city’s financially embattled courses.

The next step for the city is an in-depth review of the report by City Manager Robert Layton, who was noncommittal after the meeting about the recommendations.

“I’m going to take some time to analyze it (the report) and determine the next steps,” Layton said. “Obviously, we had a very qualified group take a look at this, the issue of privatization or running it with city staff.”

Council member Pete Meitzner said he was impressed by the committee’s work.

“I’m going to take some time and drill down in it, but I’d say right now I’m 90 percent on board,” Meitzner said.

Projected net income increased at the courses this summer, by about $750,000, under a retooled business plan compiled by city staff and the city’s parks board.

“That’s the conclusion they drew, and the savings that could result from privatization were minimal,” Layton said.

Bryan Frye, who headed the golf panel, praised the performance of the city’s golf division employees.

“Now, we’ve got people out there who understand they’re responsible for their own success,” Frye said. “You saw a lot of employees step up and say ‘We can do better and we will do better.’

“People choose whether or not to play your course, if you treat them well.”

The golf panel determined that Landscapes Unlimited, a Lincoln, Neb., firm, presented the best privatization proposal, according to city documents presented at a Tuesday workshop.

But in light of the improved bottom line this summer, and in light of concession projections in the private proposal that the committee felt were unrealistic, the group recommends the courses remain under the city’s golf division.

The committee recommends:

•  Improve managerial oversight of the golf division through continued citizen-driven oversight by the golf advisory board, although the committee recommended the appointment of new members.
•  Improve customer service and salesmanship through training of golf staff and management, preferably by a city-hired consultant.
•  Create a full-time marketing and business development position.
•  A thorough review of the pro shop business model, driven by Landscape Unlimited’s proposals to retool that golf clothing and equipment sales operation.
•  A new course software system permitting thorough customer analysis.

The report provided no cost estimates for the recommendations.

One key to the golf board’s proposal is a plan to draw up a contract with Landscapes Unlimited to have at the ready while the 2013 performance is analyzed. If business lags again next summer, the city would be able to move quickly into a privatized deal.

That placated council member Jeff Longwell, a champion of privatizing city functions.

“I know almost every single one of those committee members, and I have a great deal of respect for them,” Longwell said. “They are very knowledgeable, great businessmen and they are golfers. At the end of the day, if that’s their recommendation, then I can live with it.”

But Longwell was skeptical of golf board claims that Wichita golf business doubled averages across the Midwest, due to the retooled business plan. 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, Chris Tuohey, general manager of the publicly owned Sand Creek Station course in Newton, told the Eagle last month.

A year ago, Layton pitched privatization as 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 rose by more than 16,000 this summer to 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 $750,000 this year, more than double the $325,945 of 2011 and again the highest figure since 2009.

Frye said he’s confident that last summer’s business isn’t a fluke.

“I don’t think it will happen again,” he said about the downturn of the late 2000s. “I think the golf division understands what’s expected and required of them, and will continue to show gains. It’s a perfect storm.”

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