Ann Arbor Considers Selling Golf Courses (Again)

Huron Hills

Ann Arbor dot Com is reporting that the City of Ann Arbor once again is considering privatizing the Huron Hills golf course (shown above). But the plan makes no sense:

As for golf, (Jayne) Miller (City Community Services Administrator) said city staff has been approached by two different businesses interested in public-private partnerships for the Huron Hills Golf Course.

The basic concept both businesses have recommended, Miller said, would convert the front seven holes to a driving range, while retaining the back 11 holes for golf. She said if such a partnership were established, city staff believes it would minimize the city’s financial risks.

An eleven hole course with a mega driving range? Dumb. There’s already a surplus of driving range spaces in the area, what with Miles of Golf, Indian Trails, Stonebridge, Zeeb, Lake Forest, Brookside, Pine View and other privately run ranges. Adding a public-private range in competition would only hurt the privately owned businesses.

Further, an eleven hole course, over some of the hilliest terrain you’ll ever see, with seven fours and four threes has no appeal whatsoever. I’ve also thought over the routing, and thanks to the hills and valleys, I really don’t see a way to easily convert it to a nine with a better mix of holes.

They might as well close the entire thing.

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3 thoughts on “Ann Arbor Considers Selling Golf Courses (Again)”

  1. I was sort of surprised that the idea of selling/leasing/closing the golf courses was brought up again.  Still, when there is a budget crunch, golf is an easy target.  My gut feeling is that the Mayor and many of the City Council are not golfers and look at golf as an elitest sport.  As politicians, they can paint the picture of an overweight 50-something WASP riding around a golf course on the City’s dime while streets fall into disrepair and public safety workers are laid off.  Heck, it even resonates with me!  If it was only so easy to pick between City golf and good roads.

    The problem in Ann Arbor is that years ago golf was set-up in an internal fund called an
    Enterprise Fund.  Unlike most Parks & Recreation properties (soccer fields, tennis courts, pools, dog parks, nature areas, ice rinks, etc…), the golf courses were set aside and a separate accounting was created for them.  A large share of the Parks overhead is assigned to the courses.  The workers are part of the collective bargaining units in the City with the associated wages and benefits.  It becomes next to impossible in this economy for the courses to break even.  During the last fiscal year (ended 6-30-2009) the golf revenue increased 20% and they stilled showed a net loss.

    Unfortunately, the problem with closing one or both courses is that the overhead won’t disappear. Neither will the bond payments from the bonds that paid for the course renovations back in the 1990’s.  It just will flow back into the Parks & Recreation budget.  In fact, the soon-to-be-former head of the City division that oversees Parks & Recreation admitted that the least costly choice between continuing to run Huron Hills as a golf course or closing it and allowing it to be a nature preserve was to operate the course.

    The City probably should never have gotten into the golf business.  However, back in the 50’s and 60’s there were a lot less public-access courses and it could be argued that there was a need.  Still, with the golf boom of the 1980’s and 1990’s there are now many public-access alternatives.  Leslie Park and Huron Hills really are not needed.

    Here is my prediction:  if the City decides to re-configure Huron Hills, eventually the operator will announce they can’t make any money and will walk away from the operation.  Then the City will end up with an untenable driving range/odd course facility.  We will then start the debate as to whether to operate the range/course with City workers, re-configure the land back to an 18 hole course, or turn it into a dog park.  You heard it here first folks.

    Reply
  2. Interesting that none of the close-the-courses crowd (or the media for that matter) has mentioned the Enterprise Fund.

    Most politicians, and Ann Arbor politicians in general have no idea how to run an actual business, so the concept of fixed costs and variable costs likely are beyond them. That they still have to pay those fixed costs will smack them right in the nose.

    And there’s no doubt that a private operator will abandon the project after a couple of years.

    Actually, given that it’s Ann Arbor, I wonder if before it even gets built, they find a three-quarter-inch bug on the course that’s on the endangered species list and puts the status of the range into limbo for years.

    Honestly, the best thing—other than keeping it as a golf course—would be to sell the lower seven to a developer for a ton of money (its on the river, after all; that has to be good for some nice town homes). The cash then could be used to pay off the debts and let the back nine turn into a nature preserve.

    Reply
  3. Golf is the least essential of non-essential government services. That’s not just me (a golfer) speaking. That was also the conclusion of Governing magazine, a publication widely read by public officials.

    It’s a damned-do-don’t situation. If the course doesn’t make money, it takes money away from other public purposes, and makes the non-golfing majority pay for our pleasure. Even if the course does make money, it means that the power of government is in competition with private enterprise.

    The ideal situation for taxpayers and golfers would be for the city to sell off (not lease) the course to someone who would make it a go as a a privately own (though not necessarily “private”) course. Could such a course survive? I don’t know. If the above comment is true, however, the new owner could reduce expenses by dumping an expensive union contract.

    Would city taxpayers be stuck with paying redundant workers? Perhaps. But they’re already paying for something they shouldn’t anyway. A sale would simply mean the workers would now be killing time sweeping city-owned basketball courts or something else.

    Reply

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