On Tuesday, the Urban County Council heard a report from Denver-based golf consultant J. J. Keegan. He was paid $15,000 for his services. I read it, then watched it twice online. I’ve spoken to Keegan, to parks director Monica Conrad, to Commissioner of General Services Geoff Reed, to Mayor Jim Gray, to Lexington golfers, golf pros and golf-course employees. And I’ve played public golf here since the Reagan administration.
Here’s my two-cent’s worth.
Keegan framed the challenge well: Does Lexington consider public golf a quality-of-life amenity or a drain on city coffers?
He enthusiastically noted that Lexington’s golf courses are gems. (I like to say that Lexington golf is to everywhere else what Keeneland is to other horse tracks). He recommended increased investment in course maintenance. He noted that pro-shop staffing is sometimes excessive, and that retraining staff to cover other duties would improve value. He urged that senior rates kick in at age 60, not 50, and noted that Lexington gives varying, sometimes overlapping discounts — a system which could be simplified.
All fine. But the rest of Keegan’s ideas were straight out of the playbook of private-golf advocates, who have been pressuring the city for years to eliminate their municipal competition: Raise fees. Not just incrementally, but dramatically. Close four of the five courses from December through February. Close nine of the 18 holes at Meadowbrook, in favor of a driving range and mini-golf. He discussed closing either Tates Creek or Lakeside permanently, recommended fewer employees and maintained that employee benefits are a problem for municipal golf operations.
Keegan maintains that the “average” golfer makes $96,000 a year, and questions why the recreational activities of the wealthiest among us should be subsidized. I just don’t believe it. (If true, then my Saturday group of retirees, journalists and working stiffs are sure dragging down the average. Maybe that number includes President Donald Trump.)
Go out to Tates Creek some day and ask about any six-figure salaries. It’s true, as council member Angela Evans underscored, that the game carries a reputation as a rich-guy pastime and needs to be made more widely accessible. How steep increases in public golf fees would help that is lost on me.
Finally, I think the consultant did the council a disservice by stating flatly that eliminating two-thirds, or $600,000 of the operating deficit, would be easy. That could raise expectations unrealistically; and when those expectations aren’t met, it could logically trigger the next step: closing or privatizing.
This looks like a solution in search of a problem. Lexington could easily regard the $900,000-and-dropping pricetag of our first-rate array of public golf courses as an asset worthy of further investment. Lexingtonians enjoy the recreation and exercise. Golfers visit from around the Midwest, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop. Tournaments are scheduled here.
And golf isn’t exactly threatening the parks’ $20 million-plus annual budget. Certainly taxpayers deserve a well-run and efficient operation, but blowing a hole in this gem of a public amenity, hoping for marginal savings, is truly unnecessary and plain dumb.
If you’re a golfer, call your council member and tell them I’m right. Better yet, send me $15,000 and I’ll tell them.
Joel Pett is the Herald-Leader’s editorial cartoonist.