As courses close and freezing temperatures set in, December can often feel like the most ominous golf month of the year. And freezing conditions aside, nothing has been colder than golf’s valuation in annual municipal budgets in recent years, often debated in the final month of the calendar.
Should we sell the golf course(s)?
How many years have golf courses been in the red?
Is there anything better we could do with this land?
These are paraphrased questions, but they represent much of what parks departments, course advisory boards and local government committees discussed in the mid to late 2010s. his Tiger Boom for 15 years. For munis, December has always been a time of existential doom.
But December 2021 is not like that. In December 2021, the outlook for munis suddenly looks pretty good. Norwich Connecticut Golf Club saw its revenue increase by 15% in 2020. The city governing body then set an adjusted and reasonable revenue target for 2021, and the price eclipsed it by 17%. December has become a month to announce gains at Norwich, and they are now looking at what can be improved using those funds in 2022.
Last week, the company that runs the White Deer Golf Course in Pennsylvania write a check for $25,000 and delivered it to a meeting of Lycoming County Commissioners. The Williamsport muni had reached a self-sustaining level of operations and was now giving back to the county. Excess profit to a muni. What a thought!
Sherrill Park Golf Course, a muni just north of Dallas, has seen a 28% increase in rounds played over the past two years. They turn this into an improved drainage system and facility renovations. We haven’t worked hard to select the Muni 2021 happy stories – these are just announcements we’ve seen at Muni Monday HQ over the past 10 days.
Municipal courses are, in many ways, the lifeblood of this game. They exist to serve the needs of the customer rather than for profit. When the Marysville Golf Course in Michigan recently proposed a modest 3% increase in membership, board members asked a simple question. “Is 3% enough? Would we be better off with a bigger raise? “That’s enough to get things going,” said Mark Thompson, according to the local newspaper The voice. “We had a good year in the 2021 calendar. Three percent will hopefully be enough to have another good year in 2022.”
When the other local courses in Rockford, Illinois were closed in early December, Swanhills was open for play. Times were up, players showed up. Two hundred and thirty-two of them! And so December 2 — a Thursday! – became Swanhills biggest day of the year, make the headlines Rockford Registry Star. The late-season infusion helped make 2021 the best year the course has had in over a decade.
We can consider the “Covid Boom” that golf has witnessed over the past 20 months as a good boost for a sport that badly needed it. But now that it’s lasted two full seasons of play, perhaps it’s time to consider it as an example of a virtuous microeconomic cycle as well. Basically, the more you associate it with a golf course, the more that course can improve on its own, improving the golf experience for players.
The Los Alamos County Golf Course is a prime example. Just over 19,000 people live in Los Alamos County, just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have a municipal course, and it’s been missing improvements for years. Good news: it also benefits from these improvements! Money has been earmarked for a major overhaul of the irrigation system and a refined practice – but the government approval process is slow. These plans have been researched for years. Course operators have made three different presentations on this topic this year alone.
But what’s the fastest way to get improvements approved and actually completed to a muni? “One of the things they’re going to look at first is, ‘Well, what have you shown us recently in terms of your numbers?'” said LACGC course manager Mike Lippiatt. “What does your income look like? What are your tours? What is your number of users? Things like that.
“When we see the kind of increases we made last year, we’re in a much better position to get things on your wish list.” It sounds simple and straightforward, on a business level. If your spins are down and your numbers aren’t positive, well, you’ve probably seen this story unfold on your own local muni over the past decade. The wish list grows and is never prioritized.
The LACGC operates on a July-June fiscal year, which means Lippiatt’s most recent “numbers” did not include the nationwide Covid closure of golf courses between March 2020 and May. In other words, LACGC’s last fiscal year was just gravy, baby! And that led Lippiatt to successfully campaign for three tiny but life-saving changes: an automated shooting ball dispenser, a handicap-friendly golf cart, and an update to its fiber-optic infrastructure for maintenance personnel. The latter of the group has replaced an outdated system and will help them manage course conditions more effectively.
These kind of improvements might not stand out. They will not be featured on the course website. They might not impact many visitors’ tours. But they made LACGC a better and more efficient place. And they came directly as a result of increased play over the past 20 months. Players at the Los Alamos County Golf Course will rightly reap the benefits of the money they have invested in this government-owned recreational facility. When the course reopens in 2022, the cycle will continue.