By Ken MacLeod
Once again, the City of Tulsa is wrestling with the decision of whether to subsidize the maintenance and operations of its city-owned golf courses at Mohawk Park and Page Belcher.
A recent reduction in the maintained acreage in largely out-of-play areas bordering both courses designed to save on both watering and maintenance costs has drawn some complaints from golfers and from homeowners surrounding the 36-hole Page Belcher complex. A public meeting has been called at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Page Belcher by District 2 city councilor Jeannie Cue to discuss the issues.
Tom Wolff, who manages both facilities for Billy Casper Golf, which has operated both courses on a management contract with the city since 2008. will be in attendance to explain recent maintenance practices at both courses and to answer questions.
The changes, which have reduced maintained turf acreage by nearly 160 acres at the two facilities combined, were a result of the city of Tulsa’s decision not to subsidize golf courses for the fiscal year 2014-15 in the recently completed and approved city budget.
In a harsh budget climate in which most departments suffered cuts, $17 million was trimmed from the previous fiscal year and 141 positions were eliminated, city officials prodded by some city councilors determined that the city would no longer be able to add funds for the courses to the golf course operations fund (7050). Golf operations had been funded in BCG’s tenure from amounts ranging from $300,000 to $750,000 with $500,000 in 2014. Part of that money was used to retire debt service from a 2003 redesign of the Stone Creek course at Page Belcher, which was retired in 2013. The rest Wolff used if necessary for course operations, particularly to pay water bills at Page Belcher which uses exclusively city water and bills have ranged from $180,000 annually to in excess of $400,000 during 2011 and 2012, Wolff said.
The question city officials must face is if the elimination of the subsidy, while politically expedient in the current climate, is penny wise and pound foolish.
Tulsa was subsidizing the two facilities by more than $2 million annually according to city insiders prior to the contract with BCG. Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor proposed closing at least a portion of the Page Belcher complex and using the land for development but was met with a furious response by golfers and quickly abandoned that plan. Wolff said his main concern is just making sure the courses have sufficient revenue to operate year round.
"Without any funds to draw on, we have to create our own reserve fund in case of a poor winter or extended hot weather in which we’re maintaining the courses but no one is playing," Wolff said.
Rounds and revenue are up dramatically under BCG. Rounds have risen by nearly 30,000 at the four courses combined since 2007 with an average of $25 per round for a revenue boost of more than $750,000. Conditions golfers enjoyed in 2013 were the best in decades, as the Champion Bermuda greens added in 2012 hit their stride and the zoysia grass fairways at Page Belcher were in superb condition.
The 2014 season got off to a rough start even before the budget issues. A harsh winter led to some problems with the greens at both courses. The 17th green at Mohawk Park had to be resurfaced and some patch work was necessary on greens at both facilities.
At this time, Wolff has resisted pushing for a dramatic enough increase in greens fees and cart fees to make up at least the $200,000 annually he expects to be paying for water bills at Page Belcher which was previously coming from Fund 7050. Instead, he is following a blueprint endorsed by the United States Golf Association for long-term health of public courses, that of reducing by as much as possible the irrigated and maintained acreage. It’s a tactic being used by courses throughout the drought-stricken Southwest and on display this year in the USGA’s flagship event. The U.S. Open at Pinehurst featured a course shorn entirely of rough and using only single-row irrigation on fairways. Pinehurst uses just a fraction of the water it did previously.
Pinehurst, however, is not lined by houses with homeowners who were accustomed to seeing manicured turf grass instead of native areas that can get tall and weedy. The new policy will likely draw as much opposition from those folks as from golfers, who may be understanding if greens, fairways, tees and immediate rough borders are maintained in much the same condition as before.
Page Belcher in particular is one of the showcase courses among Oklahoma public tracks. It hosted the Tulsa Golf Association Stroke Play Championship last weekend and Tuesday is the site of a qualifier for the 2014 Oklahoma Golf Association State Amateur Championship. Both the Stone Creek and Olde Page layouts are among the stronger public layouts in the area and Olde Page has even hosted a USGA national championship (1988 Women’s Public Links Championship.)
Long term, there are several directions the city can go. One would be to continue with the current plan of greens fees that are equal to or below most surrounding courses of equal quality and continue to search for savings on operations. Second would be to raise green fees sufficiently to cover the loss of the subsidy and expand maintenance to previous levels.
The other options barring a return of the subsidy are for the city to either greatly reduce the water rates it is charging at Page Belcher or explore alternative sources. There are currently not enough holding ponds to irrigate from. Wolff said he was told by the city it would cost $150,000 to do a study on the feasibility of using well water to at least provide some of water for Page Belcher.
Mohawk Park is irrigated mostly from lagoons near the course and water costs are minimal. As long as water costs at Page Belcher are more than a quarter of the total maintenance budget of approximately $700,000, the issue will linger.
Tulsa County, which operates 36 holes, including an 18-hole par-3 course, at LaFortune Park and 18 holes at South Lakes, does not currently subsidize its golf courses. Tulsa County Parks Director Richard Bales must make ends meet despite paying a monthly debt service on the building of South Lakes, a debt that has been refinanced several times and the note is now in year 25 since the course opened in 1989. LaFortune Park uses extensive city water supplemented by holding ponds to irrigate while South Lakes uses well water. The two county courses historically average more rounds per year than all but a handful of Oklahoma courses.
Other area municipalities have often subsided their golf courses both in terms of capital improvements and operations, including Bailey Ranch in Owasso, Battle Creek in Broken Arrow and The Canyons at Blackjack Ridge in Sand Springs.