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About the Golf Enterprise Fund

About Salt Lake City's Golf Enterprise Fund

by Ray Wheeler

Last updated:  February 8. 2015

After two decades of intense commercial development of the Jordan River flood plain, virtually the only remaining open space in the river corridor lies within private, municipal and county golf courses.  Now the golf courses are also in the crosshairs of would-be office park developers.

During 2014 two cities  have targeted four golf courses along the river for closure and possible conversion into either "natural open space" on the one hand, or residential and commercial development, on the other.

Click on the following link to download our 23-page analysis and recommendations to Salt Lake City as to how part or all of 3 city-owned golf courses along the Jordan River might be redeveloped into nature parks or "urban wilds", with native plants, wetlands, net new habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and nature education centers where inner city kids can find their only direct exposure to wild nature, and can learn techniques for natural area and wetlands restoration right in their own back yards:

Earth Restoration Network proposal for conversion of one to three Salt Lake City golf courses into nature parks, to create a connected riparian restoration greenway across the heart of the city.

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Salt Lake City's municipal golf course system is an  amenity of great value for city residents and visitors.  We believe that its intrinsic value should be sustained and enhanced.  With that goal, we offer the following assessment of possible changes to the system to make it both more financially viable and more attractive to a broader segment of the public.   Following below is a summary of our findings regarding the current financial status of the golf fund in the context of national trends and local political and financial realities, followed by a summary of our recommendations for what we believe will be beneficial changes to the system, and detailed justifications for our proposal.

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Background and context

National trendsGolf course utilization has been in decline nationwide, with 107 golf courses closing in 2010, a net loss of 141 golf courses in 2012, and over 170 net closures in 2013.  The National Golf Foundation is projecting a decline of between 500 and 1,000 courses by 2020.

SLC golf system budget shortfalls:  Our analysis of the city's financial data for the golf system shows that the system collectively has had an average annual  budget shortfall of $564,403 for the past five years.  The golf fund surplus has been exhausted and the system is now deficit-spending.  In addition, the system has a deferred maintenance budget of $26 million.  These capital improvement items are a combination of necessary maintenance to keep the system operational, plus key capital investments such as secondary water conversion which could help to make the system more financially viable.

Political obstacles:   While bonding and deficit spending will surely be necessary to pull the system out of its financial difficulties, as the city correctly observed in its response to the Golf Advisory Committee recommendations, it is most  unlikely that the public will vote to tax itself to subsidize a sport enjoyed by no more than 15 percent of the public.   Furthermore, selling off part or all of golf course lands for commercial use would be a grave loss of rapidly dwindling open space and is likely to generate a firestorm of opposition.   We certainly would prefer to see the golf courses remain in place rather than to have commercial development obliterate any more open space within the river corridor.

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Recommendations

We support bonding to upgrade and enhance the golf course system, and we believe there would be sufficiently broad support for such a bond, if and only if a substantial portion of the existing golf property along the course of the Jordan River were converted into nature parks with native plant and wetlands restoration, wildlife habitat for migratory birds, and nature education facilities.

The single largest outdoor recreation constituency in our city is the large and diverse population of those who enjoy recreating and exercising--bird and wildlife watching, fishing, running, biking, walking, hiking--in natural settings with diverse and healthy ecosystems and abundant wildlife. But this constituency has never had adequate representation in the city park system, even as the golfers and soccer players have been generously blessed with heavy subsidies to support huge land bases for their exclusive use.   We therefore believe that it is entirely appropriate to rebalance the distribution of city subsidy money to better serve the largest of all outdoor recreation uses.   In doing so, for reasons given in our detailed reporting below, we will also create huge economic as well as lifestyle amenity benefits for our city and region.

We therefore make the following recommendations:

1.)   Close or downsize several west side golf courses.

Of Salt Lake's 8 municipal golf courses, half are on the east side and half are on the west side.  Across the past 10 years the west side golf courses have had an operations budget shortfall of $3.2 million, while the east side golf courses have continued to generate operations surpluses in the amount of $9 million.   (In addition, system administration has generated a $2.8 million shortfall over the past 5 years.)

 2.)   Transfer management of and financial responsibility for the Wing Pointe golf course to the Salt Lake International Airport.

Our understanding is that the Salt Lake International Airport owns the Wing Pointe golf course land and has been required by the FAA to raise rental costs for this land to market rates for airport-adjacent lands.   Given that the Wing Pointe golf course has an operations budget shortfall of nearly $700,000 across the past ten years, that its rental costs are increasing year by year, and that the course will eventually be closed anyway to accommodate airport expansion, it seems appropriate to suggest that the city transfer management responsibility to the Salt Lake International Airport, with appropriate compensation for the city's investment in the golf course facilities.

3.  Repurpose significantly large parcels of golf course system lands (or other lands) into nature preserves and habitat restoration demonstration/education projects.   For such reallocation to be sufficient in extent to generate broad public enthusiasm and support, we propose that it should entail substantially more than the 22-acre Par 3 golf course which has already been closed.

The following parcels of golf course land should be considered on their merits for possible redesignation as  nature preserves.  We do not suggest that it is politically feasible to close all of the parcels identified below, but do believe that it would be appropriate to repurpose two or three of them.

In descending order of value and priority:

State Park Land
 

1.)  Current site of the Jordan River Off Road Vehicle Park (2500 North):  140-160 acres

Land already owned by Salt Lake City

2.)  Glendale golf course:  160 acres
3.)   Rose Park golf course:  140 acres
4.)  Peace Tree Bend (between 1700 S. and 1300 S,)  24 acres
5.)  Former "Par 3" golf course:  17 acres
6.)  "Riverview" property east of Rose Park Golf Course:  13 acres
7.)  Day Riverside Library and perimeter:  12 acres
8.)  Former "White Ballfield" property along S. side of North Temple (11 acres)
 

Existing City Parks that can and should be converted to Nature Parks:

9.)  Cottonwood and Constitution Parks (45 acres)
10.)  500 North to 700 North Jordan Parkway strip (8 acres
11.)  Alzheimer's Park (5 acres)

 

4.)  Bond as needed both for cost-effective upgrades to remaining golf courses and for conversion of former golf course lands into natural open space.

The amount of such a bond is subject to so many unknowable variables as to be unestimatable at this time.    The first step is to develop a conceptual and political consensus, from which the financials can then be developed.

5.)  Redesign existing golf courses to enhance wildlife habitat around margins and between fairways on an incremental basis.

Programs exist to provide expertise for alterations to existing golf courses to reestablish native plants and enhance wildlife habitat and water quality.   There is a wildlife-friendly golf course certification program;  we would recommend application of these best-practice standards.

6.)  Restore native plants, wildlife habitat, and river water quality in an incremental, opportunistic fashion, as funding allows, beginning immediately with small, affordable projects.

Restoration of wildlife habitat and water quality can be very expensive if large amounts of earth moving are required.  We do not recommend that restoration begin with highly engineered, high-budget projects, but rather that it be approached incrementally as opportunities for funding arise.   Examples of such potential funding sources are as follows:

  • Federal non-point-source funds
  • Wetland mitigation funds
  • Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative
  • Private foundations and donors
  • Corporations like Wells Fargo

7.)  Emphasize public participation and nature education both for adults and kids.

We strongly support the Tracy Aviary initiative to build a new nature education facility within the Jordan River corridor.   We believe that the great work of the 21st century is to repair damage to the earth's natural systems and to restore the quality of air, water, soil, streams, forests, grasslands, and ecosystems both worldwide and in our own back yards.  As we explain in more detail below, we believe this activity will be rewarding in every possible way.  Since restoration requires trained experts we emphasize the value of education and therefore recommend that one or more nature education facilities of modest size be situated within large wildlife habitat restoration areas so that those being educated, and indeed the public at large, can learn from direct exposure to the ongoing restoration planning, implementation, and assessment efforts  on lands immediately surrounding the nature education centers.

8.)  Natural area restoration should be science-based, expert-guided, and strategic

We advocate for reliance upon the Best Management Practices recommendations of the Jordan River Commission.  We believe that the best  results for the largest number of people will come from science-based assessments and wise, prudent use of public and private funding.  We expect that if properly designed the proposed natural areas will provide a huge return on investment not only by providing world-class recreational amenities but also in enhancement of our entire urban area to attract top-flight businesses and organizations to our metropolitan area.  Wisely planned restoration projects will also have a large beneficial impact on water quality.