Suburban golf courses losing money for taxpayers
Our Tax Watchdog analysis reveals $3.3 million lost
Even with a fresh coat of snow on the ground, it's time to start thinking about golf again.
Actually, taxpayer-supported golf courses across the suburbs need people playing golf rather than just thinking about it.
Nearly two-thirds of golf courses owned by suburban park districts, towns, forest preserve districts -- and in one case, an airport -- are losing money. In a Daily Herald analysis of the most recent audits of 36 suburban governments that operate golf courses, 22 of the courses combined to lose $3.3 million.
Another 14 suburban government agencies operating golf courses combined to turn a $2.2 million profit, mainly through banquet and restaurant operations or by cutting back services, according to the analysis.
But only six of the 36 governments met or exceeded their revenue targets for golf courses, while the others collectively fell $5.8 million short.
Some operators of the taxpayer-supported golf courses say there are ways to make them profitable even as interest in the sport wanes, while others defend publicly owned courses as an asset to the community.
"We definitely realize it's hit a no-growth patch," said Tony LaFrenere, executive director at the Schaumburg Park District, which lost $92,359 on its golf operations last year. "It's indicative of our society that there are many more options and we have to be relevant to new audiences."
For Schaumburg that means courting youngsters and women, using at least one of its four nine-hole courses for a soccer-golf hybrid called "foot golf" and adding indoor simulators to lure golfers during the winter.
Eleven of the 36 suburban governments with golf operations reported six-figure losses in the most recent audits.
Aurora's two courses combined to cost local taxpayers more than $450,000 in 2014, according to the city's most recent audit.
In Glendale Heights, the village-owned Glendale Lakes Golf Club has been operating at a deficit for at least three straight years and cost local taxpayers $360,951 last year alone. That's on top of a $231,816 deficit in 2014 and a $123,031 deficit in 2013.
Village officials said golf course and banquet staffing have been reduced and the village's administration has taken over oversight of golf course operations to reduce costs and drive down future deficits.
Glen Ellyn lost $304,788, Oak Brook lost $266,452, Round Lake Area Park District lost $242,721, Dundee Township Park District lost $233,278 and Elk Grove Village Park District lost $223,476 on golf courses, the most recent audits showed.
Despite the dismal trend, some governments have made significant investments in golf to try to lure dwindling numbers of players to their links.
Mount Prospect Park District shuttered its golf course in 2014 for an $8.1 million renovation. Reopened late last year, the course outpaced 2013 revenues for those same months by nearly 21 percent, Executive Director Greg Kuhs said. Still, the course improvements will never be paid off by user fees, Kuhs admitted.
"We certainly made those improvements to make it a more attractive and enjoyable place to come and play golf," Kuhs said. "The board believes the golf course enhances the community and brings a lot of value that will hopefully have some ancillary effects by those it brings to town."
It appears the way for a municipal golf course to make money doesn't involve golf at all. The most financially successful taxpayer-supported courses all have booming events operations.
The DuPage Airport Authority's Prairie Landing Golf Club boasted profits of $603,973 in 2014, Wheaton Park District's Arrowhead Golf Club made $583,699, and Wheeling Park District's Chevy Chase Golf Course was $361,709 in the black. Each has sizable banquet and restaurant operations that bring in significant revenue.
Golf-related earnings at Wheaton's Arrowhead course accounted for just a quarter of the $7.8 million in revenue in 2014, according to the park district's audit. Almost all the rest of Arrowhead's revenue comes from its banquet business and restaurant.
"It's not just offering it that makes you money," said Wheaton Park District Executive Director Michael Benard. "We operate like a business. We try to do everything like it was our own money, and at the end of the day it boils down to quality of product and quality of service. But it's a constant state of vigilance to make sure it's sustainable."
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