Park district weighs future of 50-year-old Lake Bluff Golf Club

During its 50-year history, Lake Bluff Golf Club has become a self-described "must-play" destination for area golfers and one of the few public facilities offering private-caliber amenities.

But golf has become a tough business for public entities, and whether the Lake Bluff Park District will continue to operate the scenic North Shore course is in doubt.

Ahead of the decision, public meetings are planned for 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 26 and March 5 at the park district gym, 355 W. Washington Ave. The financial nuts and bolts and other relevant aspects of the golf operation will be presented. Attendees can comment, and questions will be answered on the district's website.

District officials are withholding details, saying no decision will be made until a "thorough" public process is complete. The question is whether or how a public golf course fits into the district's future.

The decision would have implications outside Lake Bluff, as residents aren't the only ones who enjoy the well-kept greens and fairways.

"We do have a significant amount of nonresidents who play the course, and that includes the surrounding area over 15 miles away," according to Ron Salski, park district executive director.

The course's long-term viability has been a consideration for 10 years, according to Salski. During that time, a driving range has been built and management operations subcontracted to Billy Casper Golf.

Whether to continue operating the course is driven by a long-range plan for when the district's debt is retired in 12 years.

"The golf course is creating financial challenges for the park district until the (park) board makes a decision," he said. "Our main focus is let's make a decision about the golf club, then we can factor in the financials."

Financial history and forecast of club operations, as well as data on the golf industry nationally and locally, will be presented.

"The numbers aren't looking good," Salski acknowledged. "There's so much information. It's important it's presented concisely and all at one time."

The golf business is nowhere near its heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, say experts and those involved in the operations.

"What you're seeing is inflation, and expenses are growing much faster than the green fees you can charge to operate the golf courses," said Richard Singer, senior director of the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Florida. "I think the problem is particularly acute in the public sector."

According to the golf foundation, rounds played in 2017 were down 2.7 percent after remaining nearly flat the two previous years.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District operates 72 holes at three courses and continually is trying to trim expenses.

"It's (the industry) nothing like it was years ago, not even close," said Jim Ballowe, the district's director of facilities. "For a lot of people in the golf business, it's a matter of survival," he added.

There are too many golf courses and not enough golfers, according to Ballowe and others.

"We're actually making a little money," he said. "We're not walking on water but we're keeping our heads above water. It's just controlling expenses."

The state of golf is one reason the Park District of Highland Park opted to stop running the Highland Park Country Club as of this year.

The park district has been leasing the 100-acre property from the city but intends to buy it.

"We are beginning planning for natural areas, walking trails, biking trails (and) stormwater detention," said Executive Director Liza McElroy.

"To have this open space opportunity is pretty unique."

The district will continue to operate Sunset Valley Golf Club. Both courses were in need of major renovations, McElroy said, and it was determined two weren't needed. Sunset Valley will reopen this summer after a $7 million renovation to the course and clubhouse.

Lake County Board member Sandy Hart, a Lake Bluff resident, served seven years on the park board ending in 2012. She said Lake Bluff Golf Club was a good source of revenue until the early 2000s.

"A lot of areas are looking at golf courses and saying, 'Should we be in the golf business?'" she said.

  A winter view of the Lake Bluff Golf Club and clubhouse. The Lake Bluff Park District is hosting two public sessions to discuss the future of the district-run 18-hole golf course off Green Bay Road. Paul Valade/
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