Government

Cedar Rapids again reviews city golf finances, future

Council rejected closing Jones in 2017 despite flooding

Tim Rowland of Cedar Rapids fishes Monday on the edge of floodwaters, near the location of a pond, at the Jones Golf Course. Flooding episodes can cost $15,000 to $20,000 each time to repair the grounds, but the bigger hit is lost income when golfers can’t play, city officials have said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Tim Rowland of Cedar Rapids fishes Monday on the edge of floodwaters, near the location of a pond, at the Jones Golf Course. Flooding episodes can cost $15,000 to $20,000 each time to repair the grounds, but the bigger hit is lost income when golfers can’t play, city officials have said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Since the City Council rejected a plan in 2017 designed to reverse heavy deficits in the city’s golf department by shuttering Jones Golf Course — the worst financial performer of the Cedar Rapids’ four municipal courses — the course has been closed more than two months due to flooding, including several days this month.

City officials plan to reopen the front nine holes of Jones on Monday, but the back nine will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

The front nine will be open from 7 a.m. to dusk daily and cart usage will be determined each day, according to the city.

“We don’t have a timeline for the back nine,” said Gail Loskill, a spokeswoman for the parks and recreation department. “We will need to reseed some areas because the water was on the turf for so long that it killed the grass. We are close to the seeding window for fall so we are hoping to get it reseeded quickly. The timeline for reopening the back nine will largely depend on weather.”

The closure comes toward the end of what officials and data suggest was a year of improvement for Jones. Rounds played are up from 2017, and fiscal 2018 ended with smaller losses, compared with previous years.

City officials plan to evaluate the entire municipal golf program. Gardner, Twin Pines and Ellis make up the other three municipal courses.

When Prairie Creek rises, the Jones course’s greens, tees and other parts of the grounds become susceptible to inundation on a nearly annual basis. Flooding has cost Jones thousands of rounds of golf and repair costs over the years.

The course, at 2901 Fruitland Blvd. SW, opened in 1959.

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Flooding episodes can cost $15,000 to $20,000 each time to repair the grounds, but the bigger hit is lost income when golfers can’t play, city officials have said.

A 2016 internal report found Jones experienced 25 flood events leading to 22 full or partial closures since 2001, and Jones has had closures each of the past four seasons.

• In 2018, the front nine holes at Jones have been closed 12 days, and the back nine have been closed 13 days as of Sunday, according to city data. That number will grow for the back nine. Most recently, the course has been closed since Sept. 4 due to flooding.

• The 2017 season didn’t start until mid-May, about two months after the other courses opened. City staff entered 2017 anticipating permanently closing Jones, but city staff attributed the slow opening to allowing reseeded areas to regrow following flooding during fall 2016.

• In 2016, the back nine closed for five days early in the season, then the entire course closed Sept. 24 due to flooding. For context of how long a season can last, the 2017 season at Jones ended in December.

• In 2015, the back nine closed for 12 days.

Waning interest in golf — rounds have decreased 30 percent since 2006, according to the city — has been a burden to the entire municipal golf program, but flooding has compounded problems at Jones.

Jones was the largest culprit in annual operational losses that averaged $342,000 per year from fiscal 2013-15. Over a five-year period, Jones was responsible for $803,719 of a $1.1 million in golf program losses, the city reported in 2017.

The city implemented changes in 2017 to cut costs, including eliminating a golf superintendent position and a golf pro position, adjusting course fees and attempting to boost revenue through initiatives like increased marketing and recruiting new leagues.

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After the 2017 retirement of Lisa Miller, director of golf operations, an interim golf operations manager was named. None of the staffing changes are permanent, and staffing will be reviewed at the end of the year, Loskill said.

The changes appear to have had a positive financial impact.

Fiscal year 2018 ended with an operational deficit of $49,063, which was a much smaller gap than the $206,924 deficit in fiscal 2017, as well as for the 2013-15 review period.

The budget for fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, predicts $2.69 million in revenue and $2.9 million in expenses for the golf department as a whole, leaving a deficit of $235,000 — based on the assumption of four courses being open.

It’s not yet clear how much the most recent closure will financially impact Jones.

Also this year, the city plans to transfer $778,000 from the property tax-funded general fund to golf operations to begin paying down the deficit, which was $2.23 million as of June 30, 2017.

In late 2016 — after several months of study — city staff recommended the closure of Jones as a mechanism to end the annual deficits. The belief was that closing Jones would make the other three courses more profitable.

Jones, which some consider the most scenic of the municipal courses, would have been converted to parkland.

Under pressure from residents, a split City Council rejected the recommendation in April 2017 and Jones reopened. However, a majority of the council asked city staff to initiate a request for proposals to study privatizing the golf operations, to study reducing Jones to a nine-hole course as it was from 1959 to 2001, as well as revisiting closing Jones.

Staff found reducing Jones to nine holes would not save much money as many of the fixed costs would remain the same and flooding still would be a problem, Loskill said.

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The study proposal process was suspended to allow time to evaluate recent operational and staffing changes, Loskill said. No plans exist to move forward with that, she added.

“We plan to review these changes at the end of the 2018 season to determine how successful they were and see what adjustments need to be made going forward,” Loskill said.

Council member Scott Overland, who favored closing Jones and putting forth the proposal to study privatization, said he understands why plans have been put on hold, given a number of personal changes.

After a lengthy search, Scott Hock was named new director for the parks and recreation department, which oversees golf, and five of the nine council members have turned over.

Because of that and the time that has passed since the last study, Overland said the city should start from scratch with a review of the golf department to allow new officials the opportunity to weigh in.

“Early indicators for 2018 show that we are on the right track in reducing the operating loss,” Hock said in an email. “While we won’t have a final analysis until the end of the season, we feel we are going in the right direction.”

Overland said he still favors studying privatization, though he doesn’t support one outcome over the other.

Golf performance has improved this year, he said, and with the season coming to a close this presents a good time for a review. The question will be if city officials can live with Jones flooding periodically, he said.

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“It’s good to do a top-to-bottom review,” Overland said. “My opinion is the objective should be to get as close to break-even as possible. How best to get there with the assets we have, I do not have any foregone conclusions.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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