DEKALB – A large crowd turned up to oppose closing River Heights and Buena Vista golf courses, as the DeKalb Park District's Board of Commissioners announced Monday the courses will not be closing in 2020 and a special committee will be formed to solicit ideas on their trajectory beyond that.
Like many of the dozens who spoke Monday, Micah Stoddard is a lifelong DeKalb resident who learned how to play golf as a child at River Heights, 1020 Sharon Drive. He called into question the district's decision to spend $20,000 on a 102-page report by Chicago-based golf consulting firm Bill Casper Golf, and said district leadership needs to take responsibility for failing financials at the courses.
"The report suggests there is no organization, no leadership and no culture, and in my opinion that all starts at the top," Stoddard said. "The report was really a damning indictment of [District Executive Director Amy] Doll and the board. Being willing to spend $20,000 on that report, instead of accept responsibility for your part in this courses’s decline is to me what's misinformed. If we’re in such dire straights over a $65,000 deficit, why did we pay $20,000 to an outside consultant? I think its absurd."
Revenue at River Heights 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. 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. The board held its second public meeting to hear concerns from residents on the matter.
Phil Young, president of the DeKalb Park District's Board of Commissioners, said neither courses will close in 2020, and a golf committee made up of residents, district staff and commissioners will be formed to begin planning how to keep the courses beyond 2020 and ahead of adopting a fiscal 2021 budget in March.
He proposed the committee meet weekly and be chaired by avid golfer and commissioner Dean Holliday, who was ill and was unable to make the meeting, Young said.
"Sometimes it's rough sitting on this side," Young said after the meeting. "It might be brutal, but it might be brutally honest. We are here to represent you; we will continue to listen and hopefully get that committee going really quickly here."
Doll said the the district's newly adopted five-year strategic plan was in part informed by a 2018 survey that showed residents prioritized Hopkins Pool and nature trails above golf courses.
"That was a scientific, valid survey conducted by an outside group," Doll said.
The 2018 survey conducted by the district received a 12% response rate, with 401 responses to 3,200 surveys delivered by mail. Survey results show the pool received the highest level of dissatisfaction, even though it’s the fourth-most-used district facility behind the Hopkins Park playground, the Elwood Mansion and Hopkins Park Bandshell.
Former marketing and golf superintendent Scott deOliveira, who left his position in September to pursue other employment, said he believes the district undervalues the golf courses. He worked with the district for 27 years, starting as a seasonal pool employee when he went to DeKalb High School.
"At the heart of it, I've always tried to keep a focus on what are our core services," he said, identifying golf as one. "In the last few years I don’t feel the administration has felt that. My concern is, is next year’s efforts going to be genuine? Are there resources, whether it's staff, financial, is there going to be enough allocated to make this successful?"
Other seasonal employees spoke out about the importance of golf facilities, including Austin Sands, a sophomore at Northern Illinois University who works as a clubhouse staff member at River Heights and Buena Vista.
"I notice I'm the youngest one here," Sands said. "Everyone in this room, we really want to work with you guys, not trying to point fingers, not trying to dig up dirt. We're all here because we want the course to stay open for the foreseeable future."
Emily Weller, who's worked as a seasonal employee at River Heights since 2003, runs the beverage cart and said it broke down this summer.
"The beverage cart had an accident there," Weller said. "I'm told the insurance provided money to replace that, and then we saw it didn't get replaced. When people flee positions, there's more to the story. I'm not asking for what that more is, but I think people feel there's a right amount of wrong, and that something is going to happen to the courses we have."
Brad Kerkman, varsity golf coach at DeKalb High School, said the district's golf operations help the school's golf team flourish, and without it, it would be detrimental to the team.
"The concern ... from my point of view as an educator, is that we’re gonna have a big issue with being able to provide these kids with an opportunity if River Heights closes," Kerkman said.