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Taking the Bogey Out of Government-Run Golf

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How many golf courses does the Commonwealth of Virginia own? No, that is not a ‘how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb’ question.

Owning and operating golf courses is not a core government function. It is effectively competing against private enterprises that usually do the job at a lower cost and higher quality.

A number of cities, such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Phoenix have used what’s been called the “Yellow Pages Test.” The thinking is simple: if a city is delivering a service that you can find in the Yellow Pages, or on Google these days, then it is something the city should consider outsourcing or privatizing. Under Governor George Allen, Virginia was a leader in applying this common sense principle. That was then. Read on, and you’ll learn what is happening now.

Government owned golf courses are a great example of where the Yellow Pages Test should be applied in the Old Dominion. There are scores of private golf courses open to the public in Virginia, with several more that operate on a membership basis. Providing a state-run golf course is not a core function of government akin to public safety.

Recognizing that golf is not an essential government service, many other cities and states are turning to the private sector to operate and manage their courses, which can improve operations and customer service, upgrade facilities, enhance maintenance, and turn around underperforming or money-losing courses. Hundreds of municipal golf courses nationally are under private management agreements or leases.

Here’s the problem – it is hard to tell how many golf courses the Commonwealth owns and operates. A high ranking official from the McDonnell Administration who had jurisdiction over such assets claimed the state owned none. A quick web search found Virginia Tech owned and operates a golf facility, open to “students, faculty/ staff and public” with “ complete club repair service is available, with a one day turn- around time on all re-gripping” and a “pro shop (that) offers a comprehensive line of services”. An inquiry to the Division of Real Estate Services of the Virginia Department of General Services, which is mandated by state law to maintain an inventory of all state owned land, found the state inventory “does not track an agency’s specific recreational uses of a property”.

To fix this, Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax) has introduced HB 790, a bill to require the Department of General Services to provide a listing of all real property owned by the Commonwealth on the Department’s website, with a description of such property to include parcel identification in addition to a street address.

When a private manager took over Cook County, Illinois’ 10 courses—one of the largest systems nationally—they turned a $2 million annual loss into a yearly net profit of more than $1 million.

Within two years of taking over Tulsa, Oklahoma’s four golf courses in 2008—which were running in the red and threatened with closure—a private manager was able to increase net operating income by more than $1 million and increase usage by over 30 percent.

Tucson, Arizona, recently hired a golf management firm to take over its links, addressing the city’s $8 million deficit in golf operations. The Phoenix, Arizona city council voted to contract out the maintenance and concessions at five of its money-losing public golf courses. The city also plans to hire a golf consultant to develop a turnaround plan to eliminate its $2.4 million annual golf-operating deficit.

Like Tucson and Phoenix, Virginia should be looking for every opportunity to tap the private market to get taxpayers a better deal on services, balance budgets and concentrate on core government functions like public safety. Instead of spending millions on sprinklers and turf, the commonwealth should be looking to get out of the golf game.

Utah state representative Kay Christofferson (R-Lehi) is working on legislation that would call upon the state to privatize the operations of the state’s four golf courses, which are running $1.2 million in the red. “Why are we competing against people that provide that service? Let’s put it out for a [proposal] and see if we can get somebody to operate this privately,” Christofferson told the Daily Herald newspaper in Utah.

A sound proposition the General Assembly and McAuliffe Administration should embrace.

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