After years of declining interest and revenue, Wichita’s public golf system is facing an uncertain future.
Wichita leaders and golfers are now looking at how the city should operate its golf courses – if at all.
The news earlier this month that Wichita’s Park Board was rejecting the only bid it received for MacDonald Golf Course was met with relief by many in the golf community.
“We’re thrilled with it," said Tom West, president of First Tee of Greater Wichita. The nonprofit youth golf program is partnering with the city to build an education center and driving range at MacDonald, but West put plans on hold until the Park Board made a decision about the course.
“This just clears the air and eliminates all the confusion and rumors and such about what would happen to MacDonald golf course, and to us that’s just great news," West said. "We’re full speed ahead.”
Even though MacDonald’s future as a public golf course – and the home of First Tee – is clear, the sport’s future in Wichita is still murky.
Across the country, the number of golfers is falling and courses – both public and private – are closing. Wichita isn't immune.
Now, city leaders and golfers are pushing for an outside review of Wichita’s golf system to see whether it can be run better, even if that means it’s run by someone else.
"Obviously, the game is declining," said Troy Houtman, director of Wichita Park and Recreation, which includes the Golf Division. "We have more golf courses than we have a need for. So one of the biggest issues is how do we maintain five golf courses with a dwindling amount of revenue."
A sustainability study of Wichita’s golf system earlier this year showed that rounds played at the city’s five municipal courses peaked in the 1990s and has fallen steadily since, down to about 150,000 last year. It’s left Wichita with a $600,000 hole in its Golf Enterprise Fund.
The fund doesn’t receive tax dollars and is supposed to be self-sustaining: Players pay fees, those fees pay maintenance and equipment at the golf courses, and players keep coming back.
But that’s now how it’s worked out.
"We're going to be operating at a deficit, so our budget department is pulling dollars from other areas of the city to help cover our deficit," Houtman said. "And, you know, if the roles are reversed and, say, the police department was over budget and they had to use parks and recreation dollars to cover their deficit, I would be unhappy.
"So I'm looking at my fellow directors and saying, 'Thank you very much.' Any time that there is an overage there’s something else that's not been not being done."
About 40 percent of the enterprise fund actually goes to golf; the other 60 percent goes to staff salaries and administrative fees the courses have to pay, like the police department and water.
What was supposed to be a self-sustaining system has become unsustainable. And all of that trouble finally caught up with the city this year: Not only did Park Board members consider selling a course, but this summer, they voted to close L.W. Clapp Golf Course in south Wichita.
"Even with closing Clapp they're still not in the black," said Cindy Renard, a member of the Park Board’s Golf Advisory Committee.
She says it’s time for a big change in the city’s golf system – and not just in the number of courses.
“I think we improve our course conditions, we could improve our customer service, our marketing, expand our concessions offerings and just our offerings in general whether it be in league play and tournaments," she said. "That will increase the traffic at the golf courses.”
To do that, she and a small group of fellow golfers are calling for an outside evaluation of the golf system, likely by the National Golf Foundation.
"The staff here is really too close to the problem," Renard said. "That's why it's important to have somebody outside, independent.
"I think our system is part of the problem. I feel like there has been ineffective management in the last few years, and it just needs to be looked at."
The Park Board this month recommended going ahead with the outside review, but the City Council will have final approval.
"We will have to pursue that with the City Council and convince (it) that it is essential for the success of golf," Renard said. "I think everybody realizes we can't continue, whether we continue with four courses or five, we cannot continue on the road we’re at because we can't afford it any longer.
"It’ll just be a matter of time (that) we're looking at the same situation."
McAdams Golf Club president George Kolb, who years ago also served as Wichita's city manager, is on the golf committee with Renard. He says depending on what the outside review shows, if it happens at all, the city may have a new role in managing the golf system.
“We've been providing golf services, the city has, for 100 years, and so now we've run it the same way for 100 years," he said. "Maybe it's time to look at a different model. Maybe we spin it off into a nonprofit or a public-private partnership of some type, so that we can continue that tradition for another 100 years.”
The National Recreation and Park Association outlines four different models for managing golf operations; some of them directly involve the city, others involve leasing the courses to private third parties. Right now, they’re all being considered, and Kolb says he’s not sure which management model Wichita should pursue.
"I don't know," he said. "If I had the answer then I'd be a millionaire."
Golf is not a core service, like fire and law enforcement, and it serves a relatively small part of the population. But Renard said she wants to see the city stay in the golf business, in some way or another, instead of relying on private groups like country clubs to offer the sport.
“I think municipal systems, they can offer their affordability and the accessibility," she said. "Right now we have five courses — in four corners of the city and the city's center. And I think that is important.
"You don't have to be a member ... it's an affordable venue [where] everybody is welcome.”
Municipal golf courses are also an important quality of life amenity, Houtman says.
"Golf is an important indicator of the health of a city, whether it's this city or someplace else," he said. "It sounds kind of strange, but a lot of folks use the amount of golfers and the amount of golf courses in a certain geographic area, how that equates to quality of life.
"And typically ... if the golf is doing well, that's a very strong quality of life community. So it's a strong indicator for them and that’s why it’s important for us to keep offering golf.”
Like Renard, Houtman wants to keep the city involved. He says his Park Department can provide the golf service better than anyone else.
But he says long term, golf could become fully privatized, and he’s open to discussions about what role the city might have in the future.
"I mean, we have to do what's best for the community and that's the ultimate decision," he said. "As we evaluate these things, and if that evaluation goes back in and there's a better way to operate, well, let’s see what we can do to make that happen."