Madison’s golf course advisory committee has asked for city money to help pay for millions in repairs and renovations golf officials say are needed to boost use of Madison’s floundering golf courses.
The Parks Division’s Golf Subcommittee’s final, long-shot plea for taxpayer dollars comes before it makes recommendations that could include fee hikes and closings, and it has received a chilly reception from the mayor and a key alderman.
The courses, which have finished with a deficit eight of the last nine years, need between $5.9 million and $8.6 million for maintenance and repairs, and to renovate outdated clubhouses, according to a city Parks Division report released this summer.
Without taxpayer dollars from the city or other revenue, some of the city’s 72 holes, which were meant to be self-sustaining, could be closed or sold to pay for improvements at the courses. Targets for closures would be the Southeast Side’s 9-hole Monona Golf Course or parts or all of the 36-hole Yahara Hills course, which has been the system’s biggest underperformer.
“The good news is … we have a strong base of players, we just have 72 holes that need infrastructure help,” said assistant parks superintendent Charlie Romines. “What’s going to happen if we can’t get capital dollars is … we’re going to wind up closing things ad hoc as they fail.”
Mayor Paul Soglin said he wouldn’t direct city money to the golf courses.
“Golf has to be self-sustaining and cannot rely on public subsidization,” he said. “Going back to the 1970s, the decision was made that if Madison was to have public golf courses, they had to be self-sustaining. I would not change that policy.”
Soglin said he thinks closing the Monona course and selling parts of it for development — an idea that’s fiercely opposed by many — makes the most sense.
Other than raising some awareness about the plight of the courses among council members, Ald. David Ahrens, whose 15th District includes Monona Golf Course, said he doesn’t think that the letter will result in an infusion of money to the courses.
“I’m sure there’s not going to be a groundswell of support for spending $5 (million) to $8 million on the golf courses,” he said.
Budget shortfalls are covered by the city’s general fund, Romines said.
In addition, a reduction or elimination of annual payments to the city’s general fund in lieu of taxes would be considered a subsidy, he said. In 2015, the golf system paid nearly $211,000 to the city, about $172,000 in 2016, and again is expected to pay about $172,000 this year, according to city budget documents.
Lobbying the city for a subsidy was among several recommendations that the report listed as possible ways to generate more revenue. Increased green fees, liquor sales and additional outings, like weddings and corporate events, were also recommended solutions.
The letter was intended to spark discussions with city officials and educate them about the challenges facing the courses, said Golf Subcommittee member Joni Dye.
The courses have significant capital needs after years of no reinvestment and an inability to pay for those or borrow money, she said.
The subcommittee said in its letter that the golf courses are Madison’s most-used parks and enhance the quality of life in the city. The four courses are affordable, promote physical and mental health, involve a large number of youth and seniors and are widely used by Madison’s working class, the letter said.
With some reinvestment, the courses’ clubhouses could be used for after-school programs, neighborhood meetings and other events, according to the letter.
“It may not always be obvious but these civic gems we call golf courses are an important ingredient to what makes this the great city it is,” the letter said. “It is time to reinvest in these capital improvements that are critically important. ... Failure to do so will put the golf program’s future in jeopardy.”
Including depreciation, Madison’s four golf courses — Glenway, Monona, Odana Hills and Yahara Hills — have lost about $1.4 million since 2010.
Despite increasing revenues since 2010, and a jump in the number of rounds played in 2015 and 2016, the golf courses have lost money due to increased expenses, according to the report. In 2016, about 110,000 rounds were played on the city’s four courses, compared with about 86,000 in 2013, according to Golf Subcommittee documents.
Due to wet weather and poor drainage at Yahara Hills, Romines said 2017 will likely be another losing year, with a deficit greater than last year’s $393,375.
The perennially underperforming Yahara Hills has a reputation as an undesirable, swampy golf course that’s too daunting for beginners and less talented golfers. But city officials say it also has the most revenue-generating potential — up to $500,000 — if it were to receive upgrades like improved drainage and bunkers to attract more outings.
One option included in the Parks Division report on the state of the city’s golf operations is the long-discussed idea of selling part of Monona Golf Course to a developer and turning the rest into a park. At public hearings last month and in emails to city officials, opponents of that idea called the course an important green space on the Southeast Side and a course that appeals to all types of golfers.
“The Parks Division is not excited about potentially closing any golf holes,” Romines said. “We really want to put golf on a sustainable track. ... We understand that that will require some changes.”