Bobby Nichols Golf Course in Pleasure Ridge Park. | Courtesy Louisville Parks and Recreation

The director of Metro Parks & Recreation told council members in a budget committee meeting on Wednesday that none of the 10 city-owned golf courses have turned a profit so far this fiscal year — with a total net loss of nearly $1.4 million — as the city looks at the possibility of closing and repurposing four courses.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 aims to save the city $550,000 by closing four courses after the summer — their most profitable season — when the city would seek proposals from private partners to operate the properties.

The six courses first named as possible ones on the chopping block in February are Cherokee, Charlie Vettiner, Crescent Hill, Bobby Nichols, Iroquois and Sun Valley.

Parks & Recreation Director Dana Kasler mostly faced questions about golf courses from council members in the two-hour special budget committee meeting, which was focused on the department’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Kasler and the city budget director Daniel Frockt received pushback from several council members who were opposed to the idea of closing courses, but they countered that the city no longer breaks even, as revenue has consistently gone down in recent years while personnel expenses have gone up.

According to data provided by Parks & Recreation, all 10 courses operated at a net loss in the current fiscal year through April 30, ranging from a net loss of $15,511 at Seneca to a loss of $252,481 at Sun Valley. Combined, the total net loss from the 10 courses amounted to $1,387,091.

While Seneca, the course with the highest revenue at $455,936, was near breaking even, the $351,144 of expenses at Sun Valley were over three and a half times the $98,663 of revenue it brought in.

Likewise, expenses were approaching or exceeded double the amount of revenue at the Crescent Hill, Cherokee, Bobby Nichols, Shawnee and Long Run courses.

According to the department’s figures, the lack of a profit at each public golf course was the continuation of a trend, as each course was operating at a loss during the same period through April last year: together totaling $916,533. Seneca was just $1,936 shy of breaking even in that period of the 2017-2018 fiscal year, while Sun Valley again had the largest net operating loss of nearly $200,000.

According to Frockt, the city generally broke even on its golf courses from the time of the merger in 2003 until three or four years ago, when significant deficits started to emerge and grow. He said this was likely because of a combination of decreased revenue from the “downward trajectory of play across the sport” and the increased costs of personnel due to rising pension payments.

“Long term, that’s not going to be a sustainable model,” said Frockt. “I think we’re going to keep seeing a greater and greater amount of general funds being drawn into golf.”

Kasler said that Louisville’s decline in golf revenue is not unique to the city, saying that the sport, in general, has been in decline since the early 2000s, citing a National Golf Foundation report showing that 206 courses closed in 2017, while only 16 new courses opened.

Asked about an individual’s testimony at a public hearing on Tuesday that golf play is up at city courses this year, Kasler said that while the courses had a great April, revenue remains down for the fiscal year, matching their long-term trend.

A review of the Parks & Recreation figures released Wednesday shows that revenue is actually up compared to this period in the last fiscal year, but that is mostly due to the city buying its 10th course — Quail Chase — in February of last year for $850,000. Quail Chase was only operating for a fraction of that fiscal year, but when comparing just the nine other courses, total revenue went down slightly by $11,645.

Seneca, Vettiner and Cherokee have had their revenue go up in the current fiscal year, though Seneca and Vettiner also raised some of their rates to play the courses.

The city’s new Quail Chase course places just behind Vettiner in third when it comes to revenue in the current fiscal year with $281,418, though that amount is far exceeded by its $463,376 in expenses — which is just $8,000 shy of the expenses of Seneca, the most expensive course to operate.

Asked if courses could raise their green fees to become more profitable, Kasler said that private courses have more flexibility by using variable pricing to raise or lower rates on days depending on the demand. While there may be some room for certain courses to raise rates, he said there wasn’t a “big ceiling” to do so before it caused players to switch to another course.

As for the statements of Kasler and Frockt that golf play was on the decline, Councilwoman Cindi Fowler countered by speculating that this trend would reverse itself due to the recent Masters’ win by Tiger Woods.

“Tiger won … it’s going to go up,” said Fowler. “I just really do feel like it’s going to make a difference.”

Fowler also said that city-owned golf courses remained an important government service even if they don’t make a profit on their own, comparing them to libraries.

“We provide funding to make sure (libraries) run, and I feel like golf is the same way,” said Fowler. “I just feel like services to the community are services to the community, whether or not we subsidize.”

Frockt countered to say that libraries and golf are not equivalent, because there is no private-sector entity to pick up the services of libraries.

“Many times the government steps in when the private sector has not stepped in, but there is no alternative library, there’s no place you can go to get free internet access or free access to books,” said Frockt. “There are other places you can recreate it, in terms of golf.”

The Louisville Free Public Library was one of the hardest hit departments in Fischer’s proposed budget, as it would close two branches, shorten hours, lay off 57 mostly part-time employees and attrite 35 more positions.

Not as much time was spent by council members in the budget committee meeting questioning Kasler and Frockt about the mayor’s budget proposing to keep the city’s four outdoor pools closed next year, as the administration deemed them too expensive to keep open.

While the city has acknowledged that it has spoken with officials at Papa John’s about possible corporate donations to reopen some of those pools, the officials did not reveal any more information about that possibility on Wednesday.

Noting the passion that some council members had about keeping the golf courses open, Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, who represents a district with one of the closed pools, said, “I hope we have the same fervor about our public pools as we do our public (golf) courses.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]