Flint, Michigan leaders are in discussions about privatizing the city’s four municipal golf courses. Two of the courses, Mott Park and Pierce Park currently are closed. The other two, Kearsley Lake and Swartz Creek plan to open April 1. But even that’s not a sure thing. Some council members say that with the multimillion dollar deficit, those too should be closed.
They’re having this same discussion in Ann Arbor—and no doubt, in places around the country. Golf seems to get singled out in these situations—perhaps because of its reputation as a “rich man’s sport.” People don’t seem to insist that public pools, tennis courts and basketball courts show a profit, but do demand it from municipal golf courses. A quote from a Flint Councilman clearly shows this dichotomy:
City Councilman Joshua Freeman said it’s “goofy” that the city administration said the golf courses would open but that city parks wouldn’t be able to be mowed as often this spring and summer because of budget cuts.
Freeman surely has never stopped to wonder why they’ve got city parks at all, since they don’t make any more profit than a city golf course. I find it unlikely that city pools turn a dollar, either.
One of the proper roles of government, it seems to me, is to step in when there has been a market failure. These typically come from monopolistic circumstances, externalities or—and I think this applies to municipal golf (as well as parks)—goods and services that otherwise would not be provided by private interests. As with Ann Arbor (and most cities of any size in Michigan), Flint probably has plenty of tee times available at privately owned public courses. But like Ann Arbor, I’ll bet that they don’t have anything that serves as entry level. Privately owned courses (daily fee and private club) focus on regular, (relatively) better golfers. They charge fees they can profit from and provide a full-course golfing experience. At those clubs, there’s really no room for beginners, the poor, juniors and dilettantes. The clubs just can’t make money on that sort of golfer. They clog up the works and drive the regulars away. But that’s where the muni comes in—to address this market failure.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that the proper role of the muni in an area otherwise well served by privately owned public courses is to offer an entry level course. These tracks should be shorter—perhaps 5500 yards—and easier than their surrounding sisters. My ideal municipal would have two sets of tees: regular and at 150 yards for the youngsters playing with their families. The greens would be smaller to cut back on expenses, and have two cups: a regulation hole and a double sized one (again, for the kids). With shorter fairways, smaller greens and fewer bunkers, maintenance expenses could be cut and thus, greens fees reduced. During the season, a muni would offer a variety of rec-center style programs, such as intro to golf classes, junior clinics, theme days, crazy competitions and so on. Privately owned courses aren’t going to set aside days for juniors, but a muni could and should.
The question for municipalities should not be golf or no golf, but rather what kind of golf.
Here’s a full report from the Flint Journal on their discussions about munis.