Atlanta Wants City Golf Courses to Produce More Revenue
To those who regularly play it, Candler Park Golf Course is like an eccentric old neighbor: a little fuzzy around the edges, set in its ways and, when in the right mood, pretty good company.
So when rumors began circulating recently that the 84-year-old facility could be closing, concerned linksters have responded as if to an illness of a friend.
Atlanta's parks commissioner says Candler Park residents and/or golfers need not worry that the money-losing course will close anytime soon.
But a wide-ranging financial study of the city's golf courses could bring about a variety of changes at the neighborhood course, where adults take their dogs on morning walks and children sled during snow days.
Atlanta is not alone. Seeking solutions for public courses threatened by the wallet-tightening by recreational golfers, Cobb, Gwinnett and other counties have tried a range of strategies, from taking back ownership of courses to investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades.
The study by a Colorado consultant, due later this month, could spur ideas for how Atlanta can maximize its revenue from courses ranging from the heavily trafficked one at Chastain Park to the quirky nine-holer at Candler Park.
"We're doing our due diligence," said George Dusenbury, the city's commissioner of parks, recreation and cultural affairs. "There are no short-term plans to shut down the Candler Park golf course."
But he added: "Asking the city what it's going to do in four or five years is very tough for us to answer."
American Golf Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif. runs Atlanta's Candler Park course under a management agreement that took effect in 2006. The company also signed leases through 2016 covering the city's four other courses: North Fulton Golf Course at Chastain Park, Bobby Jones, Browns Mill and Alfred Tup Holmes.
Overall, the city makes about $450,000 per year from the four leases with American Golf Corp. The Chastain Park course in particular is a powerhouse, with 50,000 rounds played last year and enough revenue to help offset a loss at Candler Park.
"We're proud of the golf courses and we've always been excited to be part of the community," said Lee Finkel, American Golf's regional director. "In general, this is an example of where a private company and a city can partner to have a successful arrangement for everybody - for the city, for the golfers and for American Golf."
Candler Park was the least played of the city's adult courses last year, hosting roughly 10,000 rounds and going about $50,000 into the red, Dusenbury said. The city covers that loss and will also have to take responsibility for water bills this year, a sum that could top $20,000, the commissioner estimated.
Less than five miles away, the course faces competition from the 18-hole Charlie Yates Golf Course at East Lake. Finkel declined to discuss any particular golf course's finances.
Dusenbury said the city's losses at Candler Park have shrunk under American Golf's management, which oversees 1,100 courses nationwide. But the company does not have a financial incentive to turn a profit on the course because the city picks up the tab if it loses money, the commissioner said.
"I'd like to have some kind of incentive for American Golf to make money [at Candler Park]," Dusenbury said. "Right now, they don't have that."
Atlanta is seeking solutions to shaky finances at other major assets, including the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center and the Cyclorama in Grant Park. It started taking a comprehensive look at its golf courses about four months ago.
As word of the golf course review and the possible implications for Candler Park spread over recent weeks, batches of yard signs sprung up, imploring residents to sign an online petition to "save" the course.
Jim Kaczenski, a former golf course superintendent at Sunset Hills Country Club in Carrollton, said the Candler Park course is not marketed effectively enough. It is ripe for more youth-focused activities and league play, he said.
"Where else in Atlanta can you go and spend $10 for nine holes?" Kaczenski asked. "This course could be marketed and promoted a lot better than it is. In my opinion, the city doesn't appreciate the potential of this property. It's been put on the back burner."
Dusenbury said options could include leaving the Candler Park golf course the way it is, raising the course fees or converting the course into a training facility and driving range. He said selling the course was out of the question. Atlanta is paying James J. Keegan of Castle Pines, Colo.-based Golf Convergence about $19,000 for the study, Dusenbury said.
"We're not doing this survey to justify a decision," Dusenbury said. "I don't want to prejudge what the results say."
Finding a fix for golf courses owned by cities and counties has become a priority as economic priorities have cut into the budgets of recreational duffers. The number of rounds played in the United States last year fell 2.5 percent compared to the year before, according to the National Golf Foundation.
In August 2010, Gwinnett County found itself back in the golf business a decade after selling its 18-hole Collins Hill Golf Club to a special public agency created to take over the course. That agency couldn't pay for the course or pay off its loans, so the county took over the course again, along with $1.8 million in debt.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, Gwinnett entered into contract with a private golf management firm to run Collins Hill.
About two years ago, Cobb County spent about $615,000 to upgrade the greens, bunkers and tee boxes at its county-owned Cobblestone Golf Course in Acworth. In the six-month period Between Oct. 1 and March 31, the number of rounds played jumped by 4,000 compared to the same period a year before.
For a course that averages between 40,000 and 43,000 rounds a year, that's a significant increase.
"The county putting dollars back into the golf course has definitely helped. No doubt about that," said Eddie Canon, director of Cobb's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.
That's exactly what Short hopes Atlanta does with Candler Park. He said the city does not spend enough to maintain and improve the course.
"It's like cutting off your nose to spite your face," he said.