Faced with consistent seven-figure deficits in its golf operations, East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission officials have launched a comprehensive review of the parish’s seven publicly funded golf courses, BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said.
The review could lead to the closure or “repurposing” of one or more of the facilities, she said last week.
“Nothing is off the table,” McKnight said. “I don’t intend to start closing anything until I get a good full analysis.”
Some courses could be converted for other uses, she said.
“I would like for us to think of how we could creatively reuse a course,” she said. “We could use it for a golf training facility.”
Since 2007, BREC’s golf operations have operated at a deficit of at least $1 million, including deficits of $1.2 million in 2011 and $1.4 million in 2010.
The 2012 budget projects an $800,000 deficit for this year.
A drop in play also has contributed to the deficits: In 2011, there were 129,230 rounds played on BREC golf courses, down from a high of 169,781 in 2006, according to information from BREC.
The downward movement reflects a nationwide trend, said Rich Richeson, a player development manager for PGA of America. Richeson works with a PGA initiative called Golf 2.0, which helps golf course operators generate more customers.
Nationally, “we have gone from 31 million to 26 million golfers,” he said. “More people are leaving the game each year than are coming into it.”
The game “overgrew” in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a glut of courses, Richeson said. Since that time, there have not been enough golfers to support the courses.
In Baton Rouge, closures of three courses — Briarwood, Shenandoah and Fairwood — were emblematic of the industry’s slide, said Ken Caldwell, BREC’s director of golf.
McKnight said she asked Richeson to tour the BREC courses to help them avoid a similar fate.
“I see a lot of opportunity,” Richeson said of the BREC courses. “That’s so often what we find in these governmental agencies, that they don’t market into their community.”
BREC must work to break down the view of golf as an “elite sport,” he said.
Attracting women and younger players to the game is one key way to bring in new players, Richeson said.
BREC’s efforts would be targeted at those groups, McKnight said.
“Women like to know that they are included in what’s going on,” she said. “When they go into the pro shop, do we have women’s apparel stuck in the corner or is it out in the center?”
BREC has had active programs to reach out to female golfers since 2004, Caldwell said, including clinics and tournaments.
“The industry, in general, needs to do a better job of making the game more of a social event for ladies,” he said. “This is what we will focus on.”
Teaching kids to play and get excited about golf would be another focus, McKnight said.
She said officials were also trying to figure out ways to make golf more affordable and less time-consuming, two of the most frequently cited barriers to people taking up the game.
Some options include instituting nine-hole rates for players who don’t have time for a full 18 holes, McKnight said.
“Why not a three-hole rate, if we could manage it?” she said. “Or a six-hole rate?”
McKnight said the BREC courses raised greens fees in January 2010, and she does not want to do so again.
McKnight also said BREC would work with the city-parish to change ordinances that prohibit BREC from serving beer and wine at its courses.
“I hear from golfers every day about that,” she said.
McKnight refused to put a timeline on the review, but she expects to receive a written report from Richeson “within the next couple of weeks.”
Once the report is in, decisions could be made by the end of the year, she said.
Four BREC golf courses — Beaver Creek, Webb Park, City Park and Santa Maria — operated at a surplus through August, according to BREC financial documents.
Howell Park, Clark Park and Woody Dumas have lost money so far in 2012, the documents show.
Dumas has lost the most: $153,704 through Aug. 31.
McKnight could not say how many extra rounds it would take to help the courses break even.
“I am not sure, maybe 35, maybe 30, at others maybe 45,” she said, speaking of thousands of rounds.
In 2011, Santa Maria had the highest number of rounds played, with 31,084. In 2010, Webb had the most, with 32,895 rounds played.
Dave Raby, 63, who plays regularly at BREC courses, said he wasn’t worried about changes, just as long BREC does not raise greens fees.
“They already raised it,” he said, referring to the 2010 increase.
Raby has been playing golf at BREC courses for 35 years, he said, and plays regularly with a group called Brother Love, which is made up of about 50 men who play socially and competitively.
“They just need to upgrade Howell Park a little bit” by improving the conditions, he said.
The review of golf course operations comes at a time when BREC is looking to trim costs and increase revenue.
Earlier this year, BREC’s governing commission ended the car allowance for top BREC executives, opting instead for a mileage reimbursement, in order to save money.
Also, the commission refused to roll forward the park system’s 14.463-mill property tax, and that will cost the system an estimated $1.488 million in 2013, McKnight has said.
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