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What to do with Golf Courses: A Continuing Story

By Charlie McCabe

Under street/golf course tunnel in Franklin Park, Boston

A number of local stories have appeared recently on what to do with private and public golf courses in Barnstable, MA and Brookline, MA, among others. In the case of Barnstable, it's a private course being proposed for more apartments (Cape Cod has a severe housing deficit). In Brookline, it's whether portions of the public course should be given over to other park-type uses.

These issues come up all of the time, and I thought it might be good to talk about some of the reasons why.

During my role as executive director for the Austin Parks Foundation, I often found myself answering questions about golf courses, both public and private. The city of Austin had six public courses at the time, with good usage, and in general, they broke even. The truth was they had to, as golf (and tennis centers) were designated as an enterprise fund—which, like city-owned convention centers, airports, and other facilities, had to bring revenue through fees to cover all costs.

Daily operations and maintenance of public golf courses are challenging enough, but then there's capital refurbishment and replacement: The city often uses public bonds to fund these improvements, such as replacing turf and greens, upgrading irrigation systems, and refurbishing clubhouses, and the funds are allocated as part of a city's capital budget. A number of cities, especially those in the South, where golf can be played year round, have come up with other ways to bring in revenue and achieve that break-even goal, such as membership—much like private courses' membership fees that help fund ongoing operations and maintenance.

A private nine-hole golf course in my neighborhood, flooded by heavy rains, July 2021

Public courses have also been challenged by private competition, from the 1990s until the start of the Great Recession in 2007-2008. During that period, there was a huge increase in the number of new private courses, primarily acting as anchors for residential development. Homes adjacent to golf courses have higher property values, like homes close to parks (anywhere from 7 to 15 percent), according to the Proximate Principle, research done by John Crompton in the early 2000s. Higher property values for residences meant higher sales prices.

As the fiscal crisis hit, many private courses had to close or declare bankruptcy. Part of the challenge was oversupply. Rounds of golf played worldwide had already been shrinking, despite the number of courses increasing. Several factors were cited: First, the departure of Tiger Woods from the professional golf circuit (in hindsight, temporary). Second, the fact that private courses' fortunes were so closely tied to adjacent residential development, now starved of capital due to the recession. Third, the realization that operations and maintenance were bigger ongoing expenses than most people recognized, and with more courses, there was more competition for fewer golfers. A wave of closures hit, and with them, questions about what to do with these large landscapes.

In many cases, the courses were sold for other uses. Some were redeveloped into industrial parks or additional housing (but only as the housing crisis eased). A number of them were purchased by public park agencies or land trusts for public usage, and many became parks. At the same time, some public park agencies were forced to think about whether they had too many golf courses and whether they could afford to manage what they had. In Austin, one course, Lion's Municipal, which operates under a lease agreement with the University of Texas, has been recommended for redevelopment, with the lease recommended for canceling back in 2019. The situation is as yet unresolved, with a nonprofit, Save Muny, working to fundraise for and protect the course, while the University of Texas continues to consider alternatives.

The debate rages on. In Brookline, the Town Meeting rejected a reduction of the public golf course from 18 holes to 9 holes for other public use. Most of the players are from outside Brookline, and the course breaks even in terms of expenses versus revenues. The private 40-acre golf course I mentioned in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable is slated for 312 apartments in 13 buildings. The local land trust has counter-proposed that there should be half the units with half the acreage to create more open space. On the Cape, 99% of housing units are occupied, 80% of those are single-family homes (vs. 55% nationally), and nearly half of the workforce on Cape Cod commutes from mainland Massachusetts over two four-lane bridges that cross the Cape Cod Canal.

In one final example, my former employer, the Trust for Public Land, purchased a private golf course for conversion by Marin County into a public park. A group of club members sued, the County ultimately prevailed, and more open space is the result. Regardless of which side of the debate you're on, the fact remains: There's a glut of golf courses across the U.S., and change could be coming to one or more of your local courses.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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