Fewer Fort Worth residents are playing golf these days and city coffers and residents’ pocketbooks are taking a hit for it.
Golf’s downturn had already put a dent in Fort Worth’s finances, but this year it could leave taxpayers covering a possible $1 million bill resulting from operation losses.
All told, taxpayers will have sunk about $2.8 million in the past three years to subsidize the city’s golf program, a sport that’s shrinking in popularity.
The number of rounds played at Fort Worth’s municipal courses is half of what it was in 1999. Last year, about 16,000 fewer golfers visited the city’s courses than in 2014 and 2015, according to a recent internal audit reported to the City Council. The audit did not calculate how much revenue was lost.
The city began subsidizing the program three years ago, spending $850,000 in 2015 and again in 2016 to cover shortfalls. This year, the city’s subsidy is $615,000, but at the end of September, the council added $550,000 more, for a possible total of $1.1 million.
That extra cash is needed because Rockwood Golf Course on the near north side off Jacksboro Highway was closed 20 months for a renovation. That was several months longer than expected.
The city is planning to spend $615,000 to shore up the golf program in 2018.
The audit’s tone falls short of telling the City Council it may want to take another look at the program, but the message is clear.
Staying in the golf business is not just about annual operating revenue and expenditures, says City Manager David Cooke. To do so includes spending millions on capital projects at the courses.
In the rough
The city’s golf woes began in the early 2000s, coinciding with the time golf hit the rough as a sport. In 2013, Fort Worth decided to shutter Z Boaz Golf Course and returned the 138-acre course into parkland and opened a dog park there. The move saved as much as $250,000 a year.
In the spring of 2014, after a lengthy look at its program and the loss of millions of dollars over a decade, the City Council decided it wanted to stay in the golf business and voted to provide the subsidy, hoping the golf program would again become self-sustaining.
In addition to Rockwood, the city operates Pecan Valley in southwest Fort Worth, Meadowbrook on the east side near Interstate 30, and Sycamore Creek, a 9-hole golf course near U.S. Highway 287 in southeast Fort Worth.
Having golf courses was too important to Fort Worth’s quality of life, the council members said at the time. They equate the golf courses to offering tennis courts, swimming pools, soccer and other athletic fields for its residents, as well as the Fort Worth Nature Center and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, which is also undergoing a financial restructuring .
In 2013, there was a nearly $1 million shortfall in the golf fund. In 2014, the city had to re-estimate its golf operations and in the end saw a much larger revenue decline than expected. The fund had a $1.1 million operating shortfall that year. The city also estimated 161,423 rounds of golf would be played in 2014. In the end, it was 122,312, according to city records.
From October 2016 through August, the golf program’s deficit so far has reached $574,089, the audit said. Only one course, the 36-hole Pecan Valley in southwest Fort Worth, makes money for the city, the audit said.
The number of rounds of golf played at city courses was about 275,000 in 1999. That plummeted 106,784 in 2016, reflecting the closure of Rockwood, according to figures. Park officials are figuring 133,959 rounds of golf will be played this year, and estimate that will go up to 134,958 rounds in 2018.
Fort Worth is not alone. Arlington had 128,171 rounds of golf played at its four courses in 2014, according to city records. That fell to 125,928 rounds in 2016. Estimates are for 107,280 rounds this year, but that drop results from closing Chester Ditto course for a redevelopment, the city said.
Is it too soon for a second look at Fort Worth’s program? Since the vote three years ago in favor of the subsidy, four council seats have new representatives.
Richard Zavala, the city’s park director, defends the program and says golf should receive some level of subsidy, just as those other recreational activities.
Cooke said that should perhaps be done on a course-by-course basis as capital spending needs arise. If a decision is made to close a course, though, the city wouldn’t sell them off , but continue to operate them as parks, he said.
“The council made an informed decision in 2014 to subsidize the golf program,” Cooke said. “To me, revisiting it is certainly appropriate, particularly before you spend a lot of capital money. Spending the capital is really an investment that says you’re in that golf course for a long time.”
Case in point is Rockwood, Cooke said.
Some of the decline in the golf program in the past year resulted from temporarily closing the then 75-year-old, 18-hole Rockwood course. The course reopened in June after a $5.1 million renovation. About $2 million of that was approved by voters in the 2014 bond program as part of the overall park referendum, with the remainder paid through the general fund and gas well revenues.
Another $6.6 million in the proposed 2018 bond program would go to a new clubhouse/cart barn and the renovation of a maintenance facility at Rockwood. It’s part of an proposed $399.5 million bond referendum, of which $84.6 million would be directed to the parks and include the construction of several community centers.
Since it’s reopened, Rockwood has seen a profit of $305,515, with the number of rounds of golf played daily exceeding expectations. On weekends, that can be as many as 200 rounds a day, “which is packed,” Zavala said.
Although the numbers only reflect the first 90 days of operation, “It does begin to substantiate the decision to re-invest” in the central city golf course, a recent report to the park board says. “The response has been overwhelming.”
The city’s golf woes seem to go unnoticed by players. They just want to play golf and see the city courses stay open.
“We were devastated when Z Boaz shut down,” said Peggy Morrison of Fort Worth, who was getting ready to tee off at the Meadowbrook course recently. “Losing that was a big deal for us.”
Morrison said she golfs a few days a week at the city courses and rates Rockwood as five stars. It would be devastating to see the city do away with its courses altogether, she said.
Gary DeFrain of Fort Worth echoed Morrison’s concerns, saying, “It would be a shame if they let it go. I like the city courses. They do a good job.”
Tom McCraw of Fort Worth said he, too, enjoys playing the city courses. “I’m hopeful golf will make a resurgence,” he said.