Out of the rough; private developers fail to slice up city golf

January 3, 2013 

There's a lot to applaud in the news that city golf courses have stepped up their business game plan. The very best part of the news, though, is that more people are playing more rounds of golf on city-owned courses.

In the long-simmering controversy over public golf courses in Fayette County, the focus was often on how much money they were losing.

Fueled by owners of private golf courses who begrudged the public competition (which existed for the most part before developers borrowed money to build their courses), the great rallying cry was that tax dollars shouldn't be subsidizing the courses.

Better, they said, to hand them over to private operators or close them and sell the land for development. That never quite rang true. If you accepted that argument, it could be extended to argue that taxpayers shouldn't pay for parks and other recreational facilities.

But good did come out of the debate.

Parks and recreation developed a business plan for the golf courses. The Urban County Council agreed to let the managers change rates and offer incentives without council approval — a process that could stretch into weeks, if not months. With a sound plan and the flexibility to react more quickly to the markets, things began to change.

The public courses offered loyalty plans for frequent golfers, lowered the senior age from 60 to 50, lowered "ladies-day" fees on weekdays, promoted offerings on social media and began selling beer. They also trimmed expenses, moving some workers to other parks positions and reducing one course manager to half-time.

The result? The city subsidy has been cut almost in half (from about $1 million to around $574,000 last year), the number of rounds of golf played on the five courses increased by about 10 percent, and concession revenue rose from an average of about $3.50 per golfer per round to about $6.

City officials note that they still don't have a full year of comparison from the old model to the new one. There may be additional tweaks to both increase revenue and reduce costs while maintaining the quality of the courses and the golfing experience.

It's tough to find the right balance between legitimate public oversight of taxpayer dollars and allowing the flexibility to trim costs while attracting more people to our public amenities.

But it's a balance the council and city administration must continue to explore because two things seem pretty certain: Public budgets will be tight, and people will continue to need the parks, trails, golf courses and other recreational spaces that make our community the uniquely livable place it is.

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