DeKALB – It was standing room only at Thursday’s DeKalb Park District Board meeting, as more than 100 community members rallied to show the board of commissioners why golf in DeKalb is important to them.
Larry Schultz said if the board members decided to close down a golf course, they would be “turning their backs on the taxpayers,” since taxpayers helped fund the DeKalb Sports & Recreation Center.
“Many people you see here tonight are people who spent countless hours on the sidelines of their kids’ activities,” he said. “In many cases, River Heights was a part of that, and now you’re considering closing one of the only Park District facilities that I actually still use. Golf is an activity that keeps many seniors active.”
Revenue at River Heights, 1020 Sharon Drive, and Buena Vista, the district’s nine-hole course at 131 Buena Vista Drive, has steadily declined, and after adding in overhead maintenance costs, the Park District is losing money on golf operations. For each round of golf played during fiscal 2019, the district subsidized $6.33 from its general fund to cover the operating deficit, according to the district’s budget for fiscal 2020. Golf operations bring in 9% of the district’s total revenue. For fiscal 2020, the golf fund is expected to be more than $65,000 in the red.
Board President Phil Young stressed Thursday that the board will not be deciding whether to close the course anytime soon. No vote was taken during the meeting Thursday, as commissioners and the packed room heard a presentation from Mike Cutler, senior vice president of business development with Chicago-based consulting firm Billy Casper Golf.
“We’re not here to be antagonists; we are here to work with everyone,” Young said, adding that the district plans to have several future public meetings now that data from the report has been shared. “We represent the public. We’re looking at all the different aspects, not just golf, but other areas in the district where we are having financial problems. We are not getting money.”
Cutler called the state of golf “a slow leak” and offered the district three scenarios: restructure the pricing, rates and staffing models at both courses; close River Heights and transfer any useable equipment and staff to Buena Vista; or close Buena Vista, which he said would improve River Heights.
“When I look at Buena Vista, I believe it’s operationally profitable,” Cutler said. “The numbers clearly prove that. The key to success is getting River Heights to do 20,000-plus rounds. With the current operational model, it’s not sustainable.”
River Heights brings in about 12,000 rounds a season, the report (which district staff said will not be available for the public until Friday) showed.
Cutler noted a nationwide dip in people choosing golf as a recreational activity, and changing weather, especially in the region, as indicated by the low numbers. He also said the district wasn’t able to provide him with data from as many past seasons as needed to put together a more comprehensive report.
Cutler said he was not optimistic about the district’s ability to maintain the courses if all remains status quo.
He suggested the district hire a full-time, on-site golf manager for River Heights, capture marketing data from those who actually do golf and then market to that specific demographic and make sure they get the right dollar amount a round.
The majority of the 20 people who spoke, including business leaders, retirees and representatives from neighboring homeowners associations were in opposition to the district closing any golf facilities. Some called into question the validity of the report without including public input.
Matt Duffy, executive director of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said he spoke on behalf of the business community, which is concerned about losing a community asset.
“It’s an asset to the community,” Duffy said. “If you’re someone from outside the area looking to bring your business here, you’re looking to move here, to go to school here, to see what options they have, and an 18-hole public golf course is an asset to the community.”
Young said this was a time for the board to listen, and no decision would be made anytime soon.
“What was presented to the board tonight was a report; it was not a plan,” he said. “What do you do when something’s not working? You try to fix it, you don’t try to throw it away. There is no ulterior plans, no behind-the-door, clandestine talks, and I’ve heard all these rumors and it’s disheartening, because I hope people have faith in us.”