Northern Hills Golf Course

Golfers walk down the first fairway during the All-City Girls Golf Meet on Friday, May 17, 2019, at Northern Hills Golf Course in Rochester. (Post Bulletin file photo)

Rounds of golf have declined since a 2015 peak, but the cost of maintaining and operating the city’s four public courses has increased.

“We’re still maintaining the courses, regardless of the number of players coming on,” Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman told the Rochester City Council during its weekly study session Monday.

At the same time, he noted that recent years haven’t been ideal for the sport.

“The weather is really telling a story there,” he said, noting that the 91,649 reported in 2015 came during an ideal season.

Since then, he said wet weather and other factors have limited activity.

Looking back further, the number of rounds seen last year — nearly 80,000 — is on par with the 2012 numbers, but the annual taxpayer cost has climbed from $55,500 to $314,000.

The result is nearly $4 of tax investment per round of golf on a public course in 2019, which is up from nearly 70 cents per round in 2012.

“The city has grown dramatically; the number of people playing golf has not,” said Rochester City Council Member Michael Wojcik.

“I want to consider what is the right amount of golf for the community, and compare it to other priorities in the community,” he added.

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Council member Shaun Palmer said that doesn’t necessarily require cutting the public expense.

“Golf doesn’t have to be a money-maker,” he said, noting that the goal should be to find ways for more people to use the park system, which includes golf courses and related facilities, such as clubhouses.

Widman said the courses already see other uses, including cross-country skiing in the winter and high school cross-country running events in warmer weather, which aren't factored into the expense per round. Additionally, he said staff is working on ways to activate facilities throughout the year.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has taken steps to address concerns regarding operation costs.

Since 2014, the city has reduced the full-time golf staff from 11 positions to seven, and the cost of annual passes and green fees have increased from 5% to 7% each year.

At the same time, Widman said the greatest obstacle to cutting costs has been the need to address aging infrastructure.

“We’re paying for things that should have been repaired years ago,” he said.

Most recently, the city built a new clubhouse at Northern Hills Golf Course, with potential plans to repair the entrance road in the spring.

“The decay of that clubhouse was being consumed by mold for the past 10 years,” Widman said.

On Monday, City Council members cited a need to look at future investments into the sport.

City Administrator Steve Rymer said plans to examine public golf expenses stems from budget discussions in April, but the City Council’s request needed to be focused.

“It didn’t give us enough clear guidance of what the council expects,” he said.

Council members requested added information on factors related to increased expenses, as well as ways to increase potential revenue and activation at the golf courses.

Rymer and Widman said city staff plans to discuss the concerns and will return to the council at a later date with an update on the defined assessment goals.

“I think this was a valuable conversation as a first step,” Rymer said of the council’s input on Monday.

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