Fort Worth leaders rethinking funding for Rockwood Golf Course

Posted Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A proposed face-lift for the Rockwood Golf Course, one of the oldest municipal golf courses in the county, is teeing off a broad discussion by officials about the viability and future of the city’s golf program.

Park officials want to spend $4.4 million on the Depression-era golf course on the city’s north side, including a new course layout and better greens and irrigation system, but so far only $2.2 million is being set aside for the renovations in the proposed $292 million bond package.

City officials are questioning whether putting more money into Rockwood and the city’s three other golf courses is a good investment.

Only Pecan Valley Golf Course made money last year, the same year the Z Boaz Golf Course closed because of its losses.

Once a moneymaking business, the city’s golf fund has been in the red since 2001 and was about $8 million in the red by the end of fiscal 2013.

Studies also show that golf has been in decline nationwide since the early 2000s. About 274,000 rounds of golf were played on Fort Worth-owned golf courses in fiscal 1998, whereas 142,000 rounds were played in 2012, nearly a 50 percent drop.

Parks and Community Services Director Richard Zavala said the Rockwood debate raises the question of whether the city should be in the golf business at all.

The city needs to “take a hard look” at each of the four remaining golf courses before the bond election, Councilman Jungus Jordan said, to find ways to make the golf fund sustainable.

“Is it better to have a few high quality golf courses that are used in large volume or to have too many golf courses that are underutilized and don’t pay for themselves?” Jordan said.

Dick Deatrick, who is on the city’s golf advisory committee, recently voted against putting the money into Rockwood, saying golf is a losing business and investing in it is unwise.

“Run it as well as you can, but I think spending a whole bunch of money on golf courses in this day and time is not very good business,” he said, adding that golf is “hanging on by its fingernails.”

Rockwood Golf Course is in Councilman Sal Espino’s district, north of downtown, and he said that the city should assist with funding golf and that he may favor including $4.4 million for Rockwood renovations in the bond package.

“Central city youths have to have a place to learn how to play golf and not everyone can be a member of a country club and play golf there,” Espino said.

What other cities are doing

Cities across Texas are experiencing a wide range of success in city-owned courses, and many are investing in golf.

Dallas, for example, has spent over $14 million on city-owned golf courses since 2001. The fiscal 2014 budget shows the general fund supporting 55 percent of the $7.3 million program.

The city of Arlington has been shrinking its losses in golf since 2007, when the fund was over $600,000 in the red, according to the 2012 audit of golf operations. In 2011, the golf fund almost broke even.

Lake Arlington Golf Course, which was restored and redesigned in 2009, posted over $150,000 profit in 2011. The city also approved $1.5 million in improvements in the 2008 bond package for the Chester W. Ditto Golf Course, which profited since at least 2006.

Though a smaller town, New Braunfels recently decided to spend $6.9 million from a bond package on renovations to Landa Park Golf Course, originally built in the ’30s. The city’s golf program is self-sustaining, said Chad Donegan, city golf manager. He said the new course will be a boon for residents and will hopefully attract more golfers to the town.

Is golf a service or a business?

Municipalities began creating golf courses in about the 1930s, Zavala said, to make the then-elitist sport available for all. Fort Worth separated the golf fund from the general fund in 1983 so that the profits could be funneled back into the courses for improvements.

Now, the golf fund is so behind it is unlikely to catch up. And that is not likely to change, Zavala said, because the industry as a whole is oversaturated and even private courses are struggling. About 150 to 180 golf courses nationwide are expected to close each year, according to the National Golf Foundation.

For Sheila Hill, chairwoman of the parks and community services advisory board, a city investment of the full $4.4 million in Rockwood is not only a service to the community, but is also good business.

“We need to be more competitive in our golf courses if we are going to have them, or we shouldn’t have them — plain and simple,” Hill said.

Councilman Dennis Shingleton is more cautious about putting that much money into Rockwood.

“There are more golf courses than there are players to maintain solvency. … That is a lot of money to be leveraged in major renovations of a golf course when there are other things to look at,” said Shingelton, also a golfer.

Angie Taylor, chairwoman of the golf committee, supported the renovations, saying municipal golf is valuable to the community even if it never beaks even.

“We need to invest in the future of Fort Worth … and that includes recreational aspects of the city. People want a place they can come live, work and play,” Taylor said.

Jay Chapa, city director of housing and economic development, said municipal golf is part of the overall package of amenities that sells Fort Worth to businesses and individuals.

To continue to operate, golf will need about a 20 percent subsidy from the city, Zavala said. The fund cannot raise rates and be competitive with the private market and has cut staffing by 39 percent since 2001. The assistance from the city would be similar to athletics and swimming pools, subsidized at 77 percent annually; the Fort Worth Zoo, receiving a 27 percent subsidy; and the Log Cabin Village, which receives a 76 percent subsidy.

“We serve a diverse population of socio-economic levels and income levels. That is the basis of parks and recreation. You go to a park, I go to a park and it doesn’t matter if I’m a millionaire and you are a pauper — we have the same footing on that park,” Zavala said.

While Jordan is in favor of the city operating golf courses, he thinks they should be self-sustaining. He supported closing Z Boaz Golf Course in 2012.

Espino and Jordan agreed that Rockwood is a unique course that deserves city investment because of the partnership with First Tee, a program that teaches golf to juniors and has invested $1.5 million in Rockwood for new teaching facilities. Rockwood also just opened a walkable three- and six-hole course, the River’s Edge, created for beginners of all ages.

The park and community services advisory board is set to vote on the staff recommendations in November. Zavala will present the recommendations of that board, the golf advisory board and the parks staff to the City Council in December.

Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984 Twitter: @CatyHirst

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