The 17th green at Walter E. Hall Golf Course in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

The 17th green at Walter E. Hall Golf Course in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Golf’s flagging popularity leaves a hole at Everett courses

EVERETT — Both of Everett’s public golf courses are raising their rates March 15.

The rate increases are modest, ranging from 49 cents to $1.50 per round at both Legion Memorial and Walter E. Hall golf courses. Rates for senior frequent-player cards and passes also are rising.

That’s part of a “nudge pricing” strategy, Everett Parks and Recreation Director Lori Cummings said, to keep rates competitive with other courses in the region without skimping on services.

“We strive for and are part of the mid-range, which is part of our business strategy,” Cummings told the Everett City Council on Wednesday.

Since last year, Everett Parks &Recreation has been conducting an analysis of golf operations to stem ongoing losses.

While income per hole and overall revenues were up in 2017 compared with 2016, the number of rounds played had fallen, and expenses continue to outstrip income.

It’s estimated that revenues from both courses will rise to $4.3 million in 2017 from $4 million in 2016. But expenses also are expected to rise to $4.5 million this year from $4.1 million last year.

Part of the reason for the lower number of rounds played is bad weather.

“Mother Nature is our business partner,” Cummings said.

But another reason for the bleaker financial picture is a combination of increased operational costs, including course maintenance and new equipment, and the decline in the popularity of the sport.

Golf already skews toward older generations, and young families often don’t have the time for a four- or five-hour round of golf on the weekend.

It’s a trend that is echoed nationwide. The Ballinger Lake Golf Course in Mountlake Terrace shut down in 2013 and was converted into a city park. In 2012, Snohomish County bought and shut down the Wellington Hills course outside Woodinville, turning it into a park.

The Lynnwood Golf Course also has been in tough financial straits, with the city loaning it money to keep it afloat. In 2016, the course was on the hook to pay back $1.1 million to the city, even after hiring an outside management company to run it more efficiently.

Last year, Everett began trying to figure out how to make the golf courses self-sustaining over the long term, and if that wasn’t possible, what to do with them.

Without making changes, the most optimistic assessment had revenues growing 2 percent per year while expenses grew 3 percent annually. By 2021, that loss was forecast to reach at least $586,000.

Cummings said the analysis will take another year to complete, longer than expected because of a reorganization of the parks department.

It is expected that the analysis will include a breakdown of sport demographics, capital costs, equipment replacement and maintenance and business models.

The city could sell unused property, change the layout of the courses to speed up rounds or even sell one of courses outright.

“Everything’s on the table,” Cummings said.

In the meantime, Everett Parks and Recreation plans to ask the City Council to extend its current management contract with Premier Golf Centers of Seattle for another two years. That’s because the results of the golf study may change how the city writes requests for bids on a new contract, Cummings said.

Premier operates 13 golf courses in the Puget Sound region. In addition to Everett’s two courses, the company also manages the Lynnwood course and the Cedarcrest Golf Course in Marysville.

The contract includes a financial incentive if the company keeps expenses low and generates as much revenue as possible for the city, Cummings said.

“This is the first year that they did not receive one,” she said.

There has been some success in containing costs, she said. For 2016, it was projected that expenses would surpass revenue by more than $300,000.

Instead, it looks like the year will close out with a $150,000 loss.

Mayor Ray Stephanson, who plays golf, warned the department to be careful not to trim too much so that the sport suffers.

“A lot of courses you see with lower price points, frankly, have skimped on maintenance and it’s not as much fun,” Stephanson said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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