When I was a kid, my father told me stories of sleeping in the City of Bethpage parking lot in the late 1960s with his buddies to try and get on one of the courses in the morning. At that time, municipal courses in America made up a larger percentage of the U.S. golf course supply than they do now – by far. But in the ensuing decades, privately-owned public courses dominated supply.
Thinking about the market today, several factors point to a real renaissance happening in the municipal golf sector. The significant rise in overall play is likely hitting the municipal tee sheets as hard – or even harder – than the rest of the market. The positive utilization story will bolster the value proposition and narrative of the importance of golf as a recreational outlet for citizens. This is helpful to muni operators, who perennially are having to justify their place in the city, county and state governmental operations. The National Links Trust, the non-profit body on a mission of “rehabilitating and operating the public golf courses in our Nation’s Capital,” has done a great job shining light on the muni story and muni happenings around America, not to mention the numerous muni revitalization and reinvestment projections happening throughout the industry.
Many in our industry have long preached the value of municipal golf, often seen as the bookend to ultra-exclusive, high-end private clubs in America. Munis have played a significant role in growing and maintaining participation in golf, most especially for the affordability factor and easy culture that reduce the barrier to entry into our game. Munis are often the closest – or only – options in urban markets. This proximity has made golf accessible to populations that otherwise likely would not have played the game.
Not to bring up a sore subject to some of our readers, but municipal courses also have long enjoyed competitive advantages, such as multiple tax and fee abatements. The admirable affordability factor at many municipal courses also has historically been underpinned by subsidized, low rates. This often means operating at a loss, which draws the ire of non-golfing citizens. Those advantages still exist and frustrate many golf course owners, and NGCOA has in the past been fairly vocal about the desire to see those competitive advantages eliminated. NGCOA was most vociferous during the golf construction boom, when prescient owners of existing courses at the time saw the supply-and-demand crisis coming before any others. It was a bit insane to witness municipalities jump on the construction bandwagon, coming out of the ground with $80 green fees, buoyed by bond referendums, coupled with years of losses – in markets that already had ample supply.
But…municipal golf has been a fixture in our game for ages and ages and today represents nearly one in every five golf courses in the U.S. Management companies have built a cottage industry specializing in being their custodians. NGCOA has been seeing more municipal operators at our events, and we hope to see more. In fact, all you muni operators out there – consider this column your official invitation to join us at the upcoming Golf Business Conference at the PGA Show, where competitors come together to learn and improve our great business. Run – don’t walk – to golfbusinessconference.com
See you all soon.