American Way Magazine
Mention the term, “city services,” to most people and what you get is a litany of complaints over missed garage pickups, killer potholes and bad cable TV, but one honest-to-goodness city service is making an impressive comeback in the most unlikely of areas, municipal golf courses.
Cities all over North America are investing some serious money in their city owned or operated golf facilities and the result has been increased profits, increased play along with some increased complaints over increased prices and the decrease of familiar layouts.
“When people talk about municipal golf courses, they almost spit out that word as in, ‘it’s just a muni course,’” said Houston director of golf operations Fred Buehler. “We’re helping to overcome that image.”
Houston’s Memorial Park is one shining example proponents of upscale municipal golf like to point to when they talk about a city course smashed flat by the ravages of time and limitless play only to be brought back to life as a showplace by a multi-million dollar renovation.
Other courses which have received favorable makeovers in the last couple years are Dallas’ Tenison Park West Course now known as Tenison Highlands, Westview in Quincy., Ill., Don Valley in Toronto, Canada and San Diego’s acclaimed Torrey Pines Golf Course, which has been selected to host golf’s prestigious U.S. Open in 2008.
“Our primary mission to provide affordable, public golf for the citizen of San Diego,” said city golf director Jim Allen. “But we take city pride in the course.”
Torrey Pines, a 36-hole facility which opened in he mid-1960s, fills the twin mission of being accessible to the citizens of San Diego, which comprise 70 percent of its play, and affordable with resident green fees at ranging from $29 to $45
“Here the situation is totally turned where people would play here than many of the private courses,” Allen added.
Buehler admits when the Memorial Park project was first discussed in the early 1990s, nobody wanted to play there, unless there was absolutely no other option.
“The course condition had basically been status quo since it opened in 1938,” Buehler said.
But Houston mayor Bob Lanier began to champion renovating the course to a true city asset and appointed a task force on the project. The committee recommended that the city spend $3 million dollars on course improvement and another $1.2 million on a new clubhouse.
The money was raised by selling on-course sponsorships. Memorial Park was closed for 13 months from September of 1994 to October of 1995.
“We still have people staying they’ll never play Memorial because we raised the prices, but most people can’t believe how nice we made it,” Buehler added.
While the green fees were raised from $12 and $16 to $22.50 and $32, income to the city has more than doubled with revenues in the last fiscal year at $2.5 million on a $2.2 budget, compared to income of just $1.2 million before the renovation.
Up north on Interstate 45, city golf leaders in Dallas were paying close attention to the Memorial Park success story and decided to try much the same thing at the Tenison Park West Course in East Dallas.
They called on Dallas-based Golf Resources, Inc., and the project became a labor for native and lead architect Steve Wolford.
“I grew up playing those courses and the condition was really shocking how bad it was, but we just didn’t have any other options back then,” he said.
Dallas Parks and Recreation Director Paul Dyer said this project, budgeted for $5 million, had to receive city council approval, and initially there were plenty of skeptics.
“Some people were reluctant to close the course to do the work,” Dyer said.
So much so, that a group of citizens were able to get an injunction to halt the work for nearly a year. But after addressing concerns over tree removal, environment and prices, renovations at Tenison began in October of 1999 and finished a year later.
“Some of those same people just said, ‘wow,’ when we got finished,” said Dyer.
David Brown, vice-president and general manager of the American Airlines Center in Dallas freely admits he was one of the leading critics of the Tenison Park plan.
“I played there 50 times a year and it just got to be a part of the family. I just didn’t think it made sense to upgrade the course if we couldn’t take care of it, but Tenison Highlands has become everything I didn’t think it could be.
“Now, I’m, a big fan of having such an asset just 5-7 minutes east of downtown,” Brown said.
“When we have a Mary Kay convention downtown, there are thousands of spouses looking for something to do and it’s crazy for them to have to go (suburbs) Plano or Lewisville or Frisco to play golf instead of right here in Dallas,” adds golf resources president Sam Swanson.
Sometimes it’s not big money, just tender loving care which has brought back city courses according to Toronto city golf director Dave Richardson.
“We used to have to hire (maintenance) workers on seniority, not ability, but now all city workers have to take a test on their golf knowledge before they can work here.
“We’re charging $55 (Canadian) for a premier course where they would play $75 or $100 elsewhere. I’d put Don Valley up against public course in the Toronto area.”
While the local municipal may never replace lush Augusta National on any best courses list, those involved say they’re giving city residents a true service they can enjoy and appreciate.
“When done right, it shows just what city government can accomplish,” said Buehler.