Lincoln golf program’s new operating plan close to teeing off

Story, photos and graphic by Alex Lantz, NewsNetNebraska

Rosey
Taylor Rosenbaum tees off on the first hole at Mahoney Golf Course. Lincoln golf courses opened for three days toward the end of February.

Updated March 10, 12:45 p.m. — The Lincoln Municipal Golf Advisory Board voted last week to approve a 4 percent price increase for daily golf fees that was originally proposed by Parks and Recreation director Lynn Johnson. The increase will make a weekday round with a cart for an adult just under $40 during the week and just under $50 on Saturday and Sunday before 1 p.m. Senior and Junior prices will be about 10 dollars cheaper than the adult prices. The final proposal will now move before the Lincoln City Council and Mayor Chis Beutler for final approval. The price increase, which will affect each of the city’s four 18-hole public courses, is likely to be approved by the city council and mayor, according to Tom Nesbitt, vice chair of the advisory board.

 

The Lincoln city golf program is in a race against spring. The opening shots of the coming golf season aren’t far off and there still isn’t a clear pricing plan in place to make Lincoln’s four city-owned golf courses self-sustaining.

“There are a lot of moving parts involved to get a plan nailed down,” Lincoln Parks and Recreation Director Lynn Johnson said. “We’re working on a lot of changes and we’re doing the best we can to get everything done in time.”

The problem

Between 2001 and 2011, Lincoln’s once self-sustaining $3.3 million golf program was forced to borrow $800,000 from the city’s general fund. Why? Because golf fee and cart rental revenues generated by roughly 180,000 rounds of golf each year couldn’t cover the city golf courses operating costs. To keep the debt from mounting, the city commissioned  a $40,000 study by the National Golf Foundation that sought suggestions for ways the golf program could return to profitability. 

The study was completed last August. It suggested turning the city’s golf courses over to a private management firm to take much of the financial risk of operating the golf courses off the city’s shoulders. Later, the Lincoln Municipal Golf Advisory Board held two public meetings to get study feedback from golfers who play the city’s courses. Many golfers were concerned by one NGF proposal in particular. It would change pricing, making it more expensive to play at the Highlands golf course and less expensive to play at Mahoney. Prices at Holmes and Pioneers golf courses would have remain unchanged. The idea was ultimately shelved. 

Changes

In the weeks that followed, the city and the golf advisory board worked together to find areas of the golf budget that could be cut to balance expenses with incoming revenue. The city eliminated golf manager Dale Hardy’s position, which will save about $110,000 a year, according to last year’s city budget. The city also eliminated the assistant grounds keeper position from each of the four courses’ maintenance staffs, an estimated savings of another $100,000 a year, according to the 2013 numbers.

When added to other staff cuts the city made in 2012, the city estimates it cut about $500,000 in positions over the last two years, according to Johnson. That has allowed the golf program to bring in about $100,000 in extra revenue over the past two seasons, which was used for overdue course improvements rather than paying off debt. Some of those funds also went toward paying for the new $1.5 million clubhouse at Holmes Golf Course. 

Mahoney No. 9
Warm temperatures thaw out the No. 9 hole at Mahoney Golf Course toward the end of February. In a race against spring, the city golf program hopes to make a decision on the price of daily fees within the next two weeks.

Still needed

Johnson estimates that the city still needs an additional $600,000 each year for course improvements. They include cart paths, improvements to the irrigation systems at Holmes and Pioneers and a new water well at Mahoney. To fund these projects, Johnson has proposed a 4 percent increase in daily golf fees. That’s in addition to 8 to 16 percent membership price increases that have already gone into effect this year. 

The 4 percent daily fee increase still requires approval by the golf advisory board. In a board meeting last month, some members expressed concern with raising the prices because they were unsure it was necessary. Johnson plans to meet with the advisory board again this week to offer clearer financial projections. Afterwards, the board is expected to vote on whether the 4 percent price increase is needed.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot of things in place that needed to be in place,” said Tom Nesbitt, vice chairman of the advisory board and avid golfer. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was and I expect this price increase to be the last step in the process. I think the 4 percent increase in daily fees will be approved, and I think golfers will be all right with that because it’s going back into the courses and it will make the courses better.”

In the public meetings, many golfers also approved of the idea of a fee price increase as long as the money is used for golf course improvements and not to pay off the golf program’s debt.

“If they can get enough money to make the golf courses significantly better in terms of course conditions, I don’t think I or any other golfer will have a problem with paying a little bit more than we have been,” regular golfer Scott Murphy said.

The plan to repay the debt

Although the golf program has made progress in cutting expenses and creating additional revenue over the last two years, it still hasn’t found a way to repay the $800,000 owed to the city’s general fund. That could change soon.Golf-debt

Johnson said the city plans to sell a piece of unused land on the south side of the Highlands Golf Course. That land is valued at $530,000, and although no serious buyers have come forward yet, Johnson is confident the land can be sold this year. The golf program has also asked the city to consider the $244,000 the golf fund paid for the land occupied by the Highlands’ city operated pool and pool parking lot. Johnson believes the city will repay the golf fund for the land by taking that amount off of the golf program’s debt. That leaves about $26,000 remaining of the golf program’s original $800,000 debt. Johnson said the golf program can pay off that amount through contracts cell phone companies pay to rent transmission towers on several of the city’s golf courses. Those contracts generate about $80,000 each year, and Johnson said cell rental revenue not used to pay down debt will fund future golf course projects.

“I think these changes will keep the golf program in the black instead of the red,” Nesbitt said. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

More details about these and other changes can be found in the strategic plan for sustainability prepared by the advisory board.

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