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Madison alders question parks plan to take over golf pro shops
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Odana Hills Golf Course
Odana Hills Golf Course
Credit:City of Madison

The Madison parks division is pushing a plan to take over administration of the clubhouses at the city's four public golf courses. But it's not proving to be an easy sell.

Three parks representatives presented a briefing on the proposal Tuesday night for members of the Common Council. The division has drafted an anticipated budget amendment, included in the proposal (on page 12). Charlie Romines, park operations manager, says Mayor Paul Soglin supports the recommendation and will sponsor the amendment.

Roughly a dozen council members were present at the briefing. "I'm really put off by how this whole thing was done and handled," said Ald. Bridget Maniaci, who noted she received information on the proposal just one day before the briefing. "How do you envision the council being involved [in the future]?" she asked.

Eric Knepp, assistant parks superintendent, assured council members that they make the final decisions on budgets and staffing -- both of which play an important role in the proposed changeover of golf operations -- when they consider Soglin's budget. "The council does have the ultimate authority," he said.

The city maintains a total of 72 holes of golf at the Glenway, Monona, Odana Hills and Yahara Hills courses. External contractors -- golf pros -- run the pro shops, which sell merchandise, food and drink and golf lessons. But the Golf Enterprise Fund, which covers stipends for the golf pros and the upkeep of golf courses, has been gradually losing revenue and cash reserves since 2000, according to the parks division.

By internalizing the operations, the city would save $139,500 annually used to support the pro contractors, though the city will likely see a decrease in concession sales and rental commissions, according to the division's proposed budget amendment. The division estimates a $260,000 profit for the 2013 year to go into the reserves.

The Golf Enterprise Fund was established decades ago, when the golf courses were created, says Laura Whitmore, parks community relations coordinator in a follow-up interview. Start-up capital for the fund came from the city, and it was designed to be self-sustaining. The Parks Division plan strives to maintain the sustainability of the Fund, adds Whitmore.

Romines said at the meeting that the supply of golfing options for residents doubled recently, while the number of golfers increased by just a third. In the last 25 years, more than 180 holes of golf have been added in Dane County. The Madison area alone boasts more than 12 golf courses, including the four run by the city and several private courses. This surplus of golf courses, coupled with the economic downturn that decreased golf's popularity nationwide, made it difficult for the city courses to profit, said Romines.

Knepp said that the Golf Enterprise Fund is not healthy, despite austerity measures put in place in 2009. "The position [of the fund] remains precarious... That liability is quite large."

He noted that three positions in the golf programs were liquidized in 2009 and the employees transferred to another division in the city. Romines added that the department does not intend to fill the position of a greenskeeper who retired this year. And many maintenance projects on the golf courses have been postponed due to the lack of available resources.

This fall, the Parks Department reviewed new proposals from the golf pros, whose contracts in the past did not face much competition from other vendors, said Romines. After a financial analysis, the department decided on Oct. 1 to recommend that the operations move "in house" to be handled by the city.

"For a department our size, we really have the organizational capacity to manage the golf courses," said Romines, who outlined the new, anticipated staff positions that must be approved by the Common Council, along with the proposed budget for the golf program. New positions include attendants, assistant pros affiliated with the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), and a clubhouse operations supervisor who is also a Class A PGA member. The department plans to pay a living wage for each position, higher than the national average, to attract strong and committed applicants.

"We recognize the value that's been added by the [current, contracted] golf pros," said Knepp, "but this is a financial issue."

Ald. Jill Johnson agreed that the golf program hasn't been self-sustaining but pointed out that such a large change should have been discussed first with the council's Golf Subcommittee.

"I would characterize this as more than just contract negotiations," said Johnson. "This is a bigger fish."

Ald. Marsha Rummel said she's been receiving a lot of emails about the proposal and asked to see a full balance sheet and comparisons with competitors. Maniaci also asked to see a balance sheet.

Whitmore, who was also present at the meeting, discussed a new marketing plan for the golf program with a great deal of enthusiasm.

With the city overseeing all four golf courses, the pro shops can offer, "consistent pricing, consistent opportunities," she said. She added that the city could establish a stronger brand and web presence for the courses as well as expand the youth scholarship program, The First Tee, to more youth and at all four courses.

The youth program, said Romines, will nurture the development of golfers who will patronize the courses in the future.

The Parks Department has to present its proposal on Nov. 1 to the Golf Subcommittee and again on Nov. 7 to the Board of Parks Commissioners. The Parks representatives at the briefing agreed to answer additional questions from the alders in writing and share the responses with the Common Council.

"I suspect there will be future discussion on this," said Knepp.

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