Time to rethink Cedar Rapids public golf

It should come down the basic economic principle of supply and demand.

People are simply no longer playing golf at the rate they once were. That’s true in Cedar Rapids as it is throughout the country.

Municipal courses — many the result of residential developer deals during the 1990s that gifted courses to municipalities — have relied more and more heavily on taxpayer subsidies. Supply has outpaced demand, resulting in deficits.

That’s a problem when a community has a single public golf course. It’s a disaster when a community operates four — more than any other community in Iowa — that compete against a dozen privately run courses and country clubs. Des Moines has three municipal courses, as does Waterloo and Davenport. In some cities, like Des Moines, local officials contract with a third party for course operation.

Greens on the Number 9 hole (red flag) and on Number 18 (white flag) are submerged at Saint Andrews Golf Couse in Cedar Rapids during the 1993 floods. July 5, 1993. Saint Andrews is a privately-owned public golf course.
Greens on the Number 9 hole (red flag) and on Number 18 (white flag) are submerged at Saint Andrews Golf Couse in Cedar Rapids during the 1993 floods. July 5, 1993. Saint Andrews is a privately-owned public golf course.

Across the state, there are nearly 450 golf courses, private and public. That’s a lot of supply.

Cedar Rapids Golf Operations, which is supposed to be a self-supporting enterprise, ran $350,000 in the red on average in the three most recent fiscal years, according to an earlier Gazette report. The department has a net deficit of more than $2 million, and looming infrastructure needs.

It isn’t a new dilemma. In 2014, taxpayers learned they had paid $1.4 million of the courses’ debt since fiscal 2010, and that the organization has been operating without a cash reserve since fiscal 2008. Yet, offering a wide variety of recreational opportunities remains an important quality-of-life aspect that draws employers and workers.

For that reason, and despite my personal disinterest in golf, I’m not opposed to the city operating courses, even at a slight deficit. Courses are an amenity — like libraries, trail systems, parks or swimming pools — that may not appeal to everyone, but ultimately boost the entire community.

But I do believe the city needs to trim supply and diversify recreational offerings. My idea on how that can happen is to renovate one of the courses into a putt-putt or miniature golf center, operated by a third-party contractor.

While Cedar Rapids has no shortage of golf courses, there is a noticeable lack of recreation options that can be enjoyed by mixed-aged groups. Miniature golf would fill that need, providing opportunities for young adults and families to play together.

There’s also a USPMGA, United States ProMiniGolf Association, that allows people of all ages, genders and nationalities to sign up to go pro. Yes, that’s right, people can become professional mini-golfers, attend tournaments and win money. One such pro, Matt McCaslin, netted about $4,000 of a $12,000 purse by winning the sport’s U.S. Open. The purse for this year’s tournament expanded to $14,000.

I’ll admit that’s fairly small when compared to traditional golf tournament winnings, but who wouldn’t want to pocket a few hundred as a result of an enjoyable hobby? Head up to Ephraim, Wis., some New Year’s Day to watch the annual Frostbite Open Mini Golf Championship at Red Putter Mini Golf course to see how determined some enthusiasts can be to get a piece of the purse.

But even those with less passion — for instance, my family of four — have been known to drop a fairly significant amount of cash for a few hours of putt-putt play. One afternoon last summer, we spent at least $100 on two rounds of mini-golf and refreshments, served from an adorable shack in the shape of an ice cream cone.

While I’m all-in for a new putt-putt course, I’ll admit that the idea may not catch on. It could require too much upfront investment, or there may be no interest from private-sector contractors. Regardless, it’s an idea that could slow the supply and demand problems faced by municipal golf courses by expanding the pool of potential customers while maintaining quality of life.

Operating four public golf courses is no longer sustainable. Simply shutting one down and selling the land to developers may halt the bleed, but won’t advance the community. We need ideas that do both. What’s yours?

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 1, 2016.