A consultant says the city of Lexington can stem losses in its golf operations by increasing green fees at its five public golf courses, shutting four courses during winter months and raising the age for senior discounts from 50 to 60.
J.J. Keegan, a golf consultant based in Colorado, studied the city’s golf operations over several months. Lexington’s five public golf courses have lost $4.5 million from 2012 to 2016. To cut those losses, Keegan recommended several changes including keeping only one golf course open from Dec. 1 to Feb. 14, increasing green fees, decreasing pro golf shop hours and increasing maintenance staff hours. Currently only one golf course — Meadowbrook — closes during the winter months. The city also lets people use multiple discounts, which means some people could pay as little as $2 per round of golf when the cost is $36.
The city is the only golf operation that gives senior discount rates to those age 50 and older, Keegan said. It should increase the age for senior discounts to 60, which is in line with other golf courses across the country.
“Your average golfer is 45,” Keegan said. “Most of your golfers qualify.”
Keegan said if the city can’t improve golf’s bottom line in two years, the city should consider closing one of its golf courses. Tates Creek is the most likely course that could be sold or used for other purposes. Another long-term solution is private management of the city’s golf operations.
Keegan presented his recommendations Tuesday during a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session.
Commissioner of General Services Geoff Reed said he will analyze Keegan’s recommendations and return to the Urban County Council in coming months with his own recommendations. Reed said privatization and closing a golf course is currently off the table.
“We need to first see how efficiently we can operate these golf courses before we make any other decisions,” Reed said. “We have already made some changes and we need to implement some changes and then go a year and see where we stand.”
Reed oversees parks and recreation. Keegan was paid $10,000.
“We have never had an outside consultant who understands the business of golf to look at our operations and make suggestions,” Reed said. “We have a very good golf operation. It has good people in it. Golf all over the country is struggling. We need to take a strong look at our golf operations as other municipalities have across the country.”
If the city makes changes, it could save as much as $600,000, Keegan said. All of the five public golf courses — Tates Creek, Meadowbrook, Gay Brewer Jr. at Picadome, Kearney Hill and Lakeside — operate at a loss, meaning tax dollars subsidize all five golf courses. Over the past four years, the city has been able to implement some cost-saving measures, cutting those losses from $969,719 in 2012 to $853,527 in 2016.
“There is $600,000 in low-hanging fruit,” Keegan said.
The city’s courses should also be re-branded and a green fee be assigned depending on the quality of the course. For example, Kearney’s green fee is $45. The rate should increase to $50. Gay Brewer would go from $37 to $45, under Keegan’s recommendations.
Keegan said on average there are 214 days in Fayette County where golf can be played. That’s why he recommended closing courses from Dec. 1 to Feb. 14.
Moreover, the city allows people to use multiple discounts, which means a veteran who is also a loyalty member can play a round for as little as $2. The city should set a minimum fee of $15 for nine holes and $20 for 18 holes regardless of the discounts used, Keegan recommended.
Keegan also looked at staffing.
“The golf pro shops are grossly overstaffed,” Keegan said. “Maintenance is understaffed.”
“If you adjusted your labor, you could save $473,502,” Keegan said. “We need to put more money into maintaining these courses.”
Keegan also found other problems at the pro shops. The pro shops only have Titleist equipment because three of the managers of the golf shops have an affiliation with Titliest.
That has to change, Keegan said.
Reed said the city has already taken steps to address problems in its golf operations. The former manager of golf operations — Mike Fields — has retired. An assistant parks director who oversaw golf has moved to a different area.
That was after a human resources investigation found widespread problems with time keeping in the city’s golf operations. That investigation found time cards in Lexington’s golf operations had been altered to cheat lower-level employees out of overtime pay. The report recommended suspensions of six golf professionals for altering time cards.
The state Labor Cabinet is also investigating time card irregularities in the city’s parks and recreation department, labor officials confirmed in May. Reed said this week that investigation is still ongoing.
The city has long struggled to cut losses in its golf operations. A proposal to shut Meadowbrook in 2011 during the recession was ultimately scuttled after golfers protested. Keegan said the majority of golfers that use Lexington courses are white, over 45 and make more than $94,0000 a year. They are also politically powerful. Golf courses across the country are struggling. Locally, Andover Golf and Country Club went bankrupt and closed in February. Its fate is still up in the air. Louisville turned its golf operations over to a private management company years ago.
“The trend across the country is to either to close or privatize golf courses,” Reed said. “But the results on privatization are mixed.”