What's the Future of Golf in Seattle?

A new report takes a swing at the sustainability of the city’s four courses
| Updated: May 10, 2019

Each year between 2009 and 2017, an average of 238,189 people played rounds of golf on the city’s four municipal golf courses. But that number doesn’t appear to be high enough to sustain the city’s operation of those courses.

That’s the conclusion of a recently released report by three consultants (Lund, Scanlan, and Cocker Fennessy). All of the city-owned golf courses—Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Interbay, and West Seattle—will require ongoing subsidies for the foreseeable future, and all four courses have significant deferred maintenance needs, totaling more than $36 million.

Under each of four scenarios the consultants considered, the golf courses, which collectively occupy 528 acres of city-owned land, will continue to lose money—between $4.1 million to $8.4 million a year by 2027. In 2017, the city spent about $8.4 million to operate and maintain the courses, or about 54 percent of the total cost (the rest is funded through fees, merchandise, and restaurant sales.) The city paid just over $104,000 for the study.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the city will analyze “long-term models to see the financial sustainability of the courses.” At the same time, she said, the Parks Department, working with other departments, will explore a range of other options for these properties. Those options “could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space, or creating affordable commercial space and housing.”

Since 2006, city policy has called for the golf courses to be self-sufficient. The goal, which has never been fully realized, was that the courses would pay for their own capital and operating costs and contribute 3.5 percent of their revenues to the city’s Park Fund (an amount that was later increased to 5 percent).

The report lays out several financial options to reduce the losses at these facilities. They include:

  • Reducing or eliminating the golf program’s ongoing contributions to the city’s Park Fund
  • Increasing user fees
  • Farming out maintenance to a private vendor to reduce labor costs.

Along with these options, two of the four scenarios in the report also involve issuing bonds to pay for deferred maintenance, which would add annual debt service of up to $3.3 million a year to the cost of the city’s golf program. The report makes the case that moving ahead with maintenance now will improve the courses, making them safer and more popular with golfers. For example, the nets at the Interbay driving range are too low for people to use clubs with long-ball flights, because of the risk of balls flying into the nearby Seattle Pacific University playing fields. “This is a significant safety liability and also a lost revenue opportunity,” the report says.

Last year, the city budget moved about half a million dollars from the parks department into the city’s capital budget to help keep the golf courses afloat. At the time, budget director Ben Noble suggested that one reason for shrinking golf revenues is that “golf just isn't as popular as it used to be.” The report affirms this conclusion—showing that the total number of rounds declined from 242,868 in 2013 to 206,010 in 2017, and that in the Seattle metropolitan area, golfers play about 12 percent fewer rounds per capita than the national average.

Despite this downward trend, the report projects that golf rounds will rebound dramatically between 2019 and 2020, spiking by 4 percent “when full course play resumes at Jefferson following capital improvements to repair damaged holes.” Overall, the report projects that the number of rounds played will, on average, increase 1 percent a year between now and 2027.

The report, which includes comments from a list of 60-plus stakeholders in the golfing community, acknowledges that golf is widely considered an elitist sport, but attributes this to the expense and exclusivity of private golf courses and country clubs. “If the City does not offer golf as a recreational opportunity, golf will indeed be limited to only those who can afford private or privately-owned public courses where fees are substantially higher than those charged at the City’s four municipal golf courses.”

Of course, golfers at public courses must also own or rent the equipment needed to play, which can be another barrier for those interested in the sport. Rental fees for golf clubs at a city facility are $20. Fees for playing a round top out at $38 on weekends. The cost of using a city golf course could get higher: The report recommends that the city consider a new fee for a maintenance fund at each golf course, while noting that raising fees “runs counter to providing access to lower income people.” Currently, the city’s golf courses offer discounts to schools, youth groups, and off-peak players. While these programs may make golf more affordable to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to play, the report notes that offering these discounts contributes to revenue loss.

While the report doesn’t address other possible uses for the land occupied by golf courses, affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least one of the city’s golf courses and using the land to develop new affordable housing. Last year, then-parks director Christopher Williams said, “Maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately.” Williams added that there wasn’t enough information about financial options that could make the courses sustainable to make a compelling case to shut any of them down. The report may provide an opening for that discussion.

Durkan's office says they’re open to the idea. “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”

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