Impact of construction at the public course in Lakeland leads to $1.1 million subsidy from city to stay afloat in 2019.
LAKELAND — City commissioners are less than pleased to learn that the Cleveland Heights Golf Course’s finances are on their way toward a double bogey.
Bob Donahay, Lakeland’s director of parks and recreation, said the golf course will require more than a $1.1 million subsidy from the city in 2019 to stay afloat. The financial forecast for 2020 isn’t much better.
“I knew we were going to have a bigger loss this past year as we’ve never been through a total renovation before,” Donahay said. “We took a big hit.”
Construction on the greens from late August to December 2018 has had a long-lasting, negative fiscal impact. Donahay said many of the 27 holes had to be closed and the ground dug up as a 30-inch force main was installed underneath the course. The pipeline laid was part of the English Oaks Force Main project to provide better service to Southwest Lakeland.
“Golfers have too many options in terms of other places to go and play,” he said. “It’s easy for them to go someplace else if they didn’t want to deal with the mess.”
While construction has ended and a new irrigation system has been installed, business continues to flag.
“The revenues haven’t come back; the golfers haven’t come back,” Lakeland Financial Director Mike Brossart said.
There will be approximately 10,000 fewer rounds of golf played at Cleveland Heights this year compared to the past, according to Donahay. Some golfers have started to return, but others have not.
“If we are losing business because people are voting with their feet and going to other public alternatives due to price, quality, or a combination of factors, we need to be looking at that and not saying it’s okay to continue to lose more and more money each year,” Commissioner Scott Franklin said.
Donahay said several neighboring municipalities have followed Lakeland’s lead in redesigning their public courses, including Bartow, leading to increased competition.
“There are so many golf courses in Polk County — there’s more golf courses than McDonald’s restaurants,” he said. “That’s what you are competing against. The sport is on the decline, it’s not on the rise.”
The Cleveland Heights course’s financial woes are not a new issue. In May 2016, city commissioners voted to make the golf course a park rather than an enterprise fund — a piece of the city that runs like a business — because the city’s annual subsidies to the golf course regularly exceeded $1 million.
“We accept as status quo it’s okay to go in right off the bat and lose over a million a year and that’s okay,” Franklin said. “I don’t think that’s okay to accept when we have some hard choices down the line.”
Mayor Bill Mutz added, “It’s not sustainable long term.”
As the commission examined funding for fiscal year 2020, they wanted to see innovative ideas to alter the golf course’s financial outlook.
“We are looking at dynamic pricing,” City Manager Tony Delgado said, in which prices would fluctuate based on demand.
Brossart said the future success of restaurateur Chuck Jamieson, who was approved to run 1916 Irish Pub out of the venue starting July 15, is critical to the course’s financial solvency.
“We need the restaurant to be successful,” Brossart said. “We need to get them to draw business in for us to get more golfers. If they are successful in this business model, we can both be successful going forward.”
Mutz said he wants to see the city’s subsidy of Cleveland Heights reduced from the anticipated $1,180,000 in 2020 to within the range of $500,000 to $600,000.
“That’s the goal to get to,” he said.
Another option to ensure the golf course’s future may be a private-public partnership.
Troller said he was contacted by a local developer who expressed interest in working with the city to build on the land, while protecting the golf course, as a site for a possible assisted living center or housing.
Donahay cautioned the commissioners about seeking a profit from operating the Cleveland Heights course.
“Folks, I’ll be honest with you, it’s a park,” he said. “You are never going to make money out there.”
Rather, Donahay said the emphasis should be that municipal golf courses play a key role in helping young golfers learn and get into the sport.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545.