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updated: 6/26/2014 4:34 PM

Editorial: Hard decisions ahead for public courses

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

President Obama is getting some flak these days for taking to the golf course a little too much. Some say it puts him out of touch with the average American.

Local and national statistics may back up those critics. And the decline in popularity of golf is something local governments that run public golf courses with taxpayer money need to consider rather than continuously losing money on those links.

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As Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin reported Wednesday, many suburban public courses are losing money, some six figures in the red in 2013.

"There are too many golf courses and not enough golfers," Michael Miller, executive director of the Illinois Professional Golfers Association told Griffin. "For the health of the industry, some of the golf courses may have to go away."

That could be a hard pill to swallow for park district and forest preserve district officials who jumped on the golf bandwagon at its height as a way to raise money and stature.

"There are a core group of enthusiasts still playing, but they're getting more conscious of what they're spending their money on and where they're spending their money at," Miller said.

Many districts hope to entice the shrinking golfing population by marketing other amenities like restaurants, bars, even gambling machines.

"There are just too many courses for anybody to be making money, but our goal is to be the premier choice," Bensenville Park District Executive Director Rick Robbins said.

The district's White Pines Golf Course lost more than $1.5 million over the last three years. They've added a new bar and grill this year.

Mount Prospect Park District has operated a golf course since 1961, though the course itself dates back to the 1920s. They decided to borrow $9 million to renovate and have closed the course down for a year to do so. Among their plans, they will make changes to all 18 holes, improve irrigation and drainage and expand a driving range.

"When you combine that with how we're preserving the character for the course, I think it becomes something really unique in this area," said Bret Barcel, director of golf operations.

Public golf courses need something unique to offset the loss of golfers. According to Turfnet.com, quoting National Golf Foundation statistics, 2013 saw a net loss of 400,000 players in the U.S. Only 14 new courses were built and 157 closed their doors.

Certainly, if that trend continues, more courses will need to close. The question for taxpayers -- golfers or not -- is whether they want to continually subsidize failing courses or elect park and forest preserve board members who will take a long, hard look at the pros and cons of these courses and make financially sound decisions.

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