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October 2019

The Muni Discord

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By Jay Karen
CEO
NGCOA

This month’s feature piece by Steve Eubanks does a really nice job illustrating the spectrum’s ends of how municipalities approach the business of golf.

Some are doing their best to employ progressive business practices to produce a healthy financial return, while others may see golf as a business that doesn’t necessarily need to make money. It’s a service to the community that can lose money or be subsidized. Even in the private sector, you will find owners who run golf courses more as a lifestyle business than as a profit center, while others are doing their best to maximize the business financially. 

The municipal topic is a timely one. Media outlets across the country – including NPR, The Washington Post and many regional papers – keep calling for my perspective on the health of golf and the closing of courses, including municipal ones. I explain that the closure of privately held golf courses is much more complex than the hyperbolic narrative of “golf is dying.” High land values, succession issues and all kinds of factors can facilitate course closings.

But what about “government golf?” That’s a different animal, and one that stirs a lot of debate in the NGCOA circles. Some would love to see their local government get out of the golf business, or at least perhaps privatize it.

The NGCOA board firmly believes that government owned and operated golf facilities should not enjoy unfair competitive advantages, which include tax abatements and tax-payer financing.  But, as Del Ratcliffe notes in the article, many of golf’s “bunny slopes” are dying off. So would the private sector step up and fill the void left by failing municipal golf courses? There’s no broad-brush answer – it would depend greatly on local market dynamics. If golfers worry about affordable golf dying along with the closing of municipal golf courses, one needs only to look at the dangerously low price of golf found on the Online Tee Time Agencies. And nonprofits like Youth on Course are facilitating amazingly low prices for kids to play the game.

As municipalities grapple with the question of what to do with poor-performing courses, I suggest civic leaders reach out and talk with the owners and operators of privately held facilities in their areas. Some honest discussions about the supply and demand realities of their markets might yield interesting conclusions about the future of golf and green space.

In the meantime, if more munis could operate on a level playing field, that would be a good start.

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