End of the ‘Tiger effect’ leaves cities holding the golf bag

Back in the boom times of the ’90s, the golf explosion brought on by Tiger Woods was too good to be true for many suburbs.

Home developers built golf courses so they could sell homes on a golf course at a premium, then “gave” the courses to cities in exchange for zoning approval. The cities operated the municipal courses.

It was a great deal for everyone until people stopped golfing.

Watchdog Minnesota reports its survey of some communities in Minnesota has turned up large operating losses this year, even in cities where the home-developer scheme wasn’t part of the mix.

Many municipal golf courses already rely on local tax revenue to subsidize annual losses. The City of Chaska, for example, lost about $270,000 operating two courses in 2012.

This year, several courses report larger than usual operating deficits. With less revenue and the normal level of expenses, there’s concerns that taxpayer subsidies at the end of the season could run higher than before.

“I would say we were $300,000 down June 5,” said Paul Schintz, director of golf for Duluth. “We did catch up a little bit but there’s no way to catch that number of 300 grand in revenue from last year.”

The number of players on Duluth’s two city courses will likely decline 10-15 percent from the 85,000 that checked in with starters last year.

“It’s been a tough one, yeah,” Schintz said.

Total rounds golfed at St. Paul’s four city courses showed an even greater swing, down by a third at the end of June from 54,400 in 2012 to 35,700 in 2013. With expenses exceeding $2 million offset by just under $1.2 million in green fees and other revenue, city losses would result in a taxpayer subsidy of $877,000 if the season had ended in June.

The problem isn’t a “Minnesota thing.”

In Iowa, taxpayers are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into keeping the city golf courses alive around Cedar Rapids. In Des Moines, however, the city has privatized the courses.

“Cities from all over the Midwest are calling us,” Ben Page, Des Moines’ parks director tells the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He said the city was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars before cashing out. This year, he says, the city got a check for $600,000 from the private firm that now runs the courses.

(h/t: Sara Meyer)