Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Concern grows over the fate of city-owned golf courses

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Big picture or little picture, the state of paralysis enveloping the City of Winnipeg's municipal golf courses is unhealthy at best, self-destructive at worst.

In the wake of its growing operational losses that have now exceeded $1 million per season and totalling at least $8 million, the city received a 2010 report from a Colorado consultant that outlines a deepening hole of deficits and a declining value to golfers.

The report urged the city at the very minimum to contract out the operations of Crescent Drive, Kildonan and Windsor Park courses to stop the bleeding and further to consider the sale of any number of the nine courses it owns, leases out or contracts out.

Nary a hard decision has yet been made and to nobody's surprise, the player experience is trending downward.

That, too, was included in the consultant's report, but in case high finance, business concepts and expensive analysis isn't clarifying the picture, the members of the Windsor Park Ladies Golf Club can be the faces for frustration and fear.

The group was founded in 1977 and for its first 34 years of existence, playing regularly at the wooded, 5,201-yard public course in St. Vital, it was simply a case of too much demand, not enough supply.

The club has always had to cap its size and hold a waiting list.

It has gone from 15 members at its origin, to 35 members by Year 3, to 62 in 1983 to 90 members in 1993 and beyond.

This year? Only alarms. As of mid-week, not only was last year's 30-person waiting list gone, but there were 13 memberships open -- a first.

"We just don't know," said one of Windsor Park Ladies' founding members Betty Grant. "Have they gone to other courses? Have they been scared away? Is it Jets' tickets? We don't know."

One thing this public-players' club members agree on is that they are uncertain about the future of their regular golf home.

In an informal post-golf discussion this week, the nods in the room were unanimous when presented with the question: "Is Windsor Park's future worrying you?"

The general flavour of their comments was anger at the city over the deteriorating state of the course -- also cited in the consultant's report -- and the do-nothing state of limbo that continues.

"The state of the course has been the problem," said Joanne King. "There were only 15 holes open for much of last year.

"That was a frustrating year, especially when we'd been told some time ago that one dollar from everyone's green fee were going to a capital fund to improve the city's courses and we found out later it just went to the city's general revenues.

"They support the professional sports. How about supporting something the average person participates in?"

It's worth noting the Windsor Park Ladies Golf Club isn't the only group using the Windsor Park facility. In addition to other golf groups, a nordic ski club has regularly used the property in the winter months, and other city-owned courses are home to a wide variety of young and old groups and leagues of players.

The Windsor Park women realize some complex issues are in play but they couldn't help a little piling on when it came to the city.

"There are a lot of maintenance issues here," said member Bonnie Higgins. "It's often just small things, like (not) moving the tee markers around or leaving the holes in the same places too long."

Higgins said she could support a move to a contracted-out or leased operator for the course, like municipal courses at Tuxedo and John Blumberg.

"As long as they kept the fees in line for city courses," Higgins said. "But private entities, they could just charge what they want."

In addition to the normal, selfish concerns, the subtext of golf availability if there is no more Windsor Park or other courses is also a part of the story.

"Worried about survival? Yes," said Susan Finlay. "Because if it (Windsor Park) doesn't (survive), where are the public players going to play?"

Those public players come in all varieties. They are young and old, early players and enthusiastic after-work types. They are often both not of great ability and price-conscious, not requiring any TPC-style championship test.

The Windsor Park Ladies Golf Club is not untypical.

It was a group of acquaintances who first met in 1977 with a common interest, to find a place to play golf. At the time, the city-run club didn't sound very interested in being the group's home.

"There never will be a ladies group, that's what the fellow running club then told us," Grant recalled. Some organizing help from the Manitoba Ladies Golf Association got the ball rolling, though, and a grassroots organization was underway.

"We've had lots of people wanting to join from the beginning but it was a struggle through the years for the municipal course, finding tee times," Grant said. "The city was adamant we could only have an hour's worth of tee times and it became a constant battle at one point to increase that.

"But we did manage to get that done and eventually, they've been pretty flexible. They've done very well over the years to fit us in."

The women's golf club's longevity and its enthusiasm was recognized by Golf Canada, the sport's governing body in this country, last fall, honoured as Manitoba's top participating club in Golf Canada membership activations at a full 100 per cent.

The Windsor Park Ladies are not what you'd call a highly competitive group -- except maybe amongst themselves -- outside their course and hardly in need of Golf Canada credentials to tote to tournaments far and wide.

"Membership (in Golf Canada) is what we've always done, even though lots of our members just want to play for 'fun,' which is what it's supposed to be anyway," said Grant, finding the award unspectacular.

"A large percentage of our members don't really care if they have a handicap, but we belong to Golf Canada so it behooves us to activate these memberships, every single one of them."

They'd like to keep doing it, keep their club going beyond a 35th year, not for any political or principled victory, but just because they enjoy it.

Which is the norm for grassroots players.

"For me, it's convenient, close to home, but I like the people," Grant said. "They're fun to play with, and there are still a few members that started just two or three years after I did. It's always great to see them. It can get a little bit more competitive when you're with people you've known for a long time, but the fun, that's the bottom line."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

 

Bulldozers lying in wait

With eager real estate developers apparently waiting just off the fairways at some or any of Windsor Park, Kildonan, Crescent Drive, Canoe Club or even Wildwood or Tuxedo, what's actually happening with city-owned golf courses?

Public players are certainly anxious for some answers.

Golf Convergence, a consulting firm from Colorado, provided a report to the city in May, 2010 on its Winnipeg Golf Services operation.

Here's a telling section on what the study found:

"The challenges that WGS is currently experiencing can be tracked through four distinct phases during the past decade. These phases are detailed below:

Phase 1 -- Profitable operation.

Phase 2 -- Competitive forces lead to declining customer base, rates fail to keep pace with inflation, discounts given to retain remaining customers; all cause revenues to fall.

Phase 3 -- Reduced profits or operating losses create deferral of capital

expenditure, resulting in deterioration of course conditions, further adversely impacting rounds and revenue.

Phase 4 - General taxpayer subsidy, contracting to independent management, sale, or closure of courses is required to relieve the Corporation of the draining financial obligation caused by the attempt to provide a recreational service.

WGS has entered the fourth phase. WGS has no way to break this cycle of deteriorating financial performance, since repayment of outstanding liabilities from operational earnings is unlikely."

WGS was found to be losing $1 million a year; its debt now up to more than $8 million, the study found. City administration is currently reviewing the study -- including its recommendation that Crescent Drive, Kildonan and Windsor Park be contracted-out as soon as possible -- and other options, like the outright sale of golf courses. Last fall it called for Expressions of Interest on all city-owned golf properties but no further word has been forthcoming from administration or council.

It's worth noting that two-thirds of council will have to approve any outright sale of a golf course.

Rough times

Golf has gone through a flat-growth period and even shown some decline though tough economic times. The 2009 Economic Impact Study of Golf for Canada pegged the number of Manitoba players at 282,000 contributing $452 million to Manitoba's GDP.

Nationally, golf accounts for 241,794 jobs and $1.9 billion in income taxes, according to the study.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 C4

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