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My View: Golf's decline will open land for industry

City 'scrounging' for industrial sites has four under its nose


If Portland city officials are “scrounging” for industrial sites among private, underused golf courses, as the Tribune’s Steve Law reports (City plan tees up golf courses for industries, Oct. 17), why not select one or two of the four public courses taxpayers have subsidized for decades and save money, or even earn a few million?

One course (Heron Lakes) on the Columbia River, is to get a new $5.4 million clubhouse. And $2.7 million will be spent on golf carts for all courses: Heron Lakes, Eastmoreland, Rose City and RedTail.

For years, they’ve operated as an enterprise — the golf fund — overseen by Portland Parks & Recreation. Enterprises legally must be financially self-sufficient so the fund gets fees from rounds and driving ranges, plus percentages (86 to 89 percent) from concessionaires’ sales/rentals of everything else. Unlike struggling private local courses, however, the fund has had the benefits of low-cost city services for survival. It reimburses bureaus for staff time, but not talent, experience and energy that must be shifted from regular duties.

For example, from 1992-96 the city attorney’s office won a lawsuit against a concessionaire contesting bidding fairness for Heron Lakes. The suit was fought all the way to Oregon’s Supreme Court. As legal billings spiraled to the fund, the City Council ordered the auditor to investigate and issue recommendations for the fund — which meant additional costs of an eight-person team.

Golf has never directly involved most Americans, let alone Portlanders, despite media’s heavy coverage. Statistics still show that 91.7 percent of Americans — including Portlanders — don’t play. Most Portlanders can’t afford $21 for nine holes, and/or don’t have time, or want to save gas. TriMet goes to three courses, but the fourth requires a mile walk (carrying clubs) from the nearest MAX station.

The sport is in serious decline anyway. Nationally, golfers dropped from 29.5 million in 2007 to 25.3 million in 2012. In 2000, 518.4 million rounds were played, but by 2012, the number was 490 million. In Portland, May rounds fell 9 percent. The National Golf Foundation estimates that within the 2010-20 decade, 10 percent of the 2,449 public courses will close. Last year, 105 went under. Worse for the sport, only 20 percent of Americans bother to watch golf on TV.

City courses serve a minority of residents, and half may not even be Portlanders. That was revealed in 1994, when the City Council added a $2 nonresident surcharge for nine holes. Furious “moochers” switched to private or county courses until plunging revenue at city courses caused commissioners to drop the surcharge rather than see the program die. So nontaxpayers still may be freeloading on our tax dollars.

In fairness, the fund’s director, John Zoller Jr., and staff have expended prodigious devotion, time and energy in promoting and preserving the program’s survival. But when Mayor Charlie Hales mandated across-the-board austerity for city services this spring because of serious shortfalls in revenue, and cuts began for social services in a climate of 16,000 homeless Portlanders and high numbers of unemployed, it’s difficult to condone continuance of a program perceived as an untouchable extravagance for the few at the expense of all too many.

A year ago, a pair of land-use experts from the National Trust for Public Land summed up painful truths about golf for mayors and city councils: “The game of golf has never been an efficient use of space. ... Golf’s popularity is not keeping up with population. ... (It requires) a full-time staff, constant maintenance and often a fleet of electric carts, a shop, and a restaurant. It is the triple combination of moribund rates of participation, high costs and sprawling land use that is putting the squeeze on public urban golf courses.

The solution, they said, was for cities to cut their losses. To “repurpose” golf courses, a major trend now for financially strapped cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati. One suggestion was to rezone them for industries or business parks and then either lease or sell the courses. If sold, they’ll reap property taxes; if leased, rent monies. Not to mention saving significant sums, manpower and headaches involved in continuing to support city courses. Presumably, that includes millions spent on building or remodeling clubhouses, as well as golf carts and maintenance.

In Portland, a compromise is in the works that could set precedence for repurposing. The owner of Northeast Portland’s Colwood National Golf Club decided to close the course and rezone its 138 acres for an industrial-park developer. The site borders the Cully Boulevard neighborhood to the south and the airport and industrialized areas north along the Columbia.

The Oregon Business Council recently issued a plan suggesting budgetary actions and lauding Gov. John Kitzhaber’s call for “a new budgeting process that starts with the revenues available.” In other words, check all line-items for fat. The OBC’s idea of fat was anything failing to benefit its members. Continuing to subsidize city golf courses would seem to qualify as “fat” now that “austerity” is the city’s budgetary must.

In the “scrounge” for industrial sites, the City Council needs to pay attention to what’s happening to golf and to explore repurposing of at least one course if subsidizing the fund is to continue. Owners of struggling private clubs point out that such a cut would boost head counts and profits for every course. But most of all, it would free up land for developers — industrial or residential. If there are “big dogs” protecting this “manger,” it’s high time the City Council let them out.

Barbara Ellis is a principal of Ellis & Associates LLC, a Portland public relations firm, a former journalism professor at Oregon State University, and a 2004 nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in history (“The Moving Appeal”). This article excerpts a September 2013 study of the city’s golf fund for Occupy Portland’s budget committee, the Peoples’ Assembly.