By Meghan Hall
The city of Seattle has grown tremendously in the past 100 years, from 276,000 in 1916, to nearly 725,000 in 2018. The explosion of its population in conjunction with an economic upswing has in turn caused developers to jump into the commercial real estate market, ushering in a new era of infill projects and high rises. That development, officials have realized, has an obvious downside: a decreasing amount of open public parks and green space. To help combat the issue, city officials led by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation have launched a Strategic Business Plan for City-owned municipal golf courses.
“The Parks and Recreation system includes a diverse range of facilities and activities designed to appeal to people with a broad range of interests and levels of ability throughout the city,” states the City’s preliminary business plan, initially launched in March of this year. “In addition to being real estate with a significant dollar value, public park land has the value of providing recreational facilities and open space that improves the quality of life for everyone who lives in, works in and visits Seattle. As Seattle becomes increasingly dense over the coming years, the importance of open space and green areas will become more and more essential.”
Seattle’s municipal golf courses are some of the last remaining stretches of open space and creek in the city, and together comprise more than 400 acres, according to preliminary plans. The Seattle Parks and Rec Department (SPR) has commissioned Lund Consulting, Scanlan Consulting and Cocker Fennessy to author a strategic business plan to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the municipal golf courses.
“The City’s municipal courses are a historic legacy that require on-going investment to preserve and maintain them for the next 100 years,” states the City in public documents. “The City needs to align its policy priorities to balance the objectives of public access, outdoor recreational opportunities, racial equity and social justice, environmental and habitat protection, open space, and financial management.”
In total the City of Seattle operates four golf facilities; Interbay Golf Center, Jackson Park Golf Course, Jefferson Park Golf Course and West Seattle Golf Course. Each course also has a clubhouse that provides food and beverages and a pro shop for merchandise and general public support. The properties all are open to the public and have additional cafes and banquet/rental facilities for use.
Together, the four facilities total three 18-hole courses, three nine-hole short courses, three driving ranges and a mini golf course. Between 2009 and 2017, 238,189 people played rounds of golf each year, per City reporting. Total acreage of the golf courses comes to about 528 acres, according to a June 2017 memorandum prepared by the SPR. And perhaps more importantly, the courses are located near the center of some of Seattle’s densest urban villages and population centers.
The initial Strategic Plan found that while the City had attempted to develop and implement a 2009 Master Plan for Golf that identified capital priorities such as clubhouse improvements, perimeter trails and on-course restrooms. However, the City was unable to fully implement the 2009 Master Plan, as actual costs were significantly higher than original projections. Improvements that were made ran about $15.5 million and were funded by long-term general obligation bonds, increasing debt service paid out of the golf operating budget by $1.1 million since 2010.
The report also found that the golf courses’ income from green fees decreased from 54 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2017, while driving range income has increased from 16 to 22 percent. Personnel expenses have also risen; jumping up 19 percent between 2013 and 2017, from $3.8 million to $4.5 million. The City and consultant report note that this increase is largely due to Seattle’s new minimum wage law of $15 per hour by 2020.
The consulting team came up with several preliminary financial scenarios for the City to implement given the courses’ financial history and status as an equitable, accessible public asset. The consultants produced four financial projections based on various scenarios such as the current status quo, the funding of deferred maintenance and capital projects, switching from a non-profit to private vendor, and the partial funding of deferred needs and new user fees.
The City has yet to determine which scenario would be fit the operation and continued maintenance of the golf courses, but is evaluating options for the golf courses’ future and is pursuing the examination of long-term models to examine the financial sustainability of the courses.
SPR declined The Registry’s request for comment.