Terrace closes golf course but has plans for park there

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — There will be no more rounds of golf played at Ballinger Lake.

Instead, the water-logged course will be transformed into “a waterfront paradise,” with winding trails, picnic tables and interpretive signs, as envisioned by city leaders in their early mental sketches.

“It’s going to be a great destination for the community,” said Don Sarcletti, director of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.

Planning for the remade park will likely take all of this year. There’s no target date yet for when the public can use the space again.

Along the way, city leaders hope to tackle two long-standing goals: water quality in the lake and a sense of identity for those who call Mountlake Terrace home.

“I’m quite excited. The golf course never really made money from day one. … Mountlake Terrace is an attractive city. (The new park plan) adds to the attraction,” Mayor Jerry Smith said.

Mountlake Terrace has owned the golf course since 1970, when a state grant helped cover three-quarters of the $439,410 price tag.

In 1987, more than 61,000 rounds of golf were played at Ballinger Lake, placing it in the top 5 for nine-hole courses nationwide, Sarcletti said.

But it’s been a steep decline since then. Between an oversaturated market, the recession and fewer people devoting themselves to the sport, the number of rounds at the local course fell to an estimated 16,000 last year.

Like many municipal courses, Mountlake Terrace outsourced its management. In 2005, that hat went to the newly formed Hardy Golf LLC.

On Nov. 5 of last year, Hardy Golf backed out of its lease agreement with the city, which was to run through 2015. The lease had already been ratcheted back twice, down to $24,000 a year plus 5 percent of gross revenues starting in 2011.

Golf course operators Tyrone and Carol Hardy said they could not recover financially from the combined effects of the continuing recession and especially bad weather.

“We put our heart, soul and money into this. We were honest, hard-working business owners who were in the wrong place at the wrong time one might say,” the couple said in a statement to The Herald. “You have to accept both the good and the bad with business and we had both. We truly enjoyed our time with the customers and have made lifelong friends because of our business. We didn’t just have a golf course, we had a home, where many of our customers felt as it was their home-away-from-home.”

The couple are exploring their options, including bankruptcy. For now, Carol Hardy is back to nonprofit work and Tyrone Hardy is working on his accounting career.

The city plans legal action, citing an estimated $205,700 it’s owed in unpaid promissory notes and rent.

For local golfers, the loss of the course means one less low-cost option.

Ballinger Lake was the most affordable of six courses in the immediate area, from north Seattle to Mukilteo, thanks in part to its smaller footprint.

A round of golf on the 9-hole course last year cost $12, or $18 to play through twice for 18 holes.

But it couldn’t keep up as other courses joined a Tiger Woods-fueled golf boom in the 1990s.

Harbour Pointe Golf Club opened in 1990 in Mukilteo. Lynnwood opened its own city-run golf course a year later. In 1996, the Nile Shrine Golf Club expanded to 18 holes and opened to the public less than a mile away from Ballinger Lake Golf Course.

Mountlake Terrace isn’t the only one to struggle.

Lynnwood also is facing financial problems operating its course, dipping so heavily into other municipal funds that it’s come under the state auditor’s watch. The city does not use a management company. Mayor Don Gough and his staff are now gathering information to prepare options for the City Council to consider.

Snohomish County bought the Wellington Hills Golf Course near Maltby a year ago and then shut it down last fall. The county plans to open a large regional sports complex on the 100-acre nine-hole course.

Elsewhere, the city of Sumner has started the new year preparing its golf course for sale, after several financially draining seasons. That course is managed by a well-known management company based in Virginia, Billy Casper Golf.

Meanwhile, excitement is brewing for the Ballinger Lake property’s future.

The City Council voted Monday to approve the “passive park” plan that puts a premium on open space and preserving natural habitats. The plan includes outsourcing operation of the clubhouse for hosting events, such as meetings and wedding receptions.

Councilwoman Kyoko Matsumoto Wright happily posted to her Facebook page after the vote: “If you can’t make money on a golf course and there’s an 18-hole right next door and another nearby that’s closing, why look for another golf vendor? When you have a waterfront paradise perfect for open space, why try to change it? I’m glad I voted for this choice.”

Recreation and Parks director Sarcletti said the planning process could include formal opportunities for public input.

Informally, commenters on the city’s Facebook page have already added their ideas, including jogging paths, fishing, covered gazebos and Frisbee golf.

As part of the transition to a park, the landscape of the 42-acre property also will likely be reshaped by diverting Hall Creek, which runs straight through the property, funneling largely untreated stormwater into the lake.

Clean up of Ballinger Lake has been an issue since 1993.

It’s a problem that also contributed to Ballinger Lake Golf Course’s reputation as a wet course, thanks to frequent flooding when Hall Creek went over its banks.

In recent years, the golf course had to be closed two to three times a season because of flooding. Standing water also took a toll on the grounds, making the ideal image of a dry course — greens and sand traps alike — a tough goal to meet.

Course correction

Golf courses across the country have been shutting down because of a combination of factors, including a glut of courses built in the 1990s and a tough economy since 2008 that put the leisure activity lower on Americans’ hobby list.

12,846: Number of golf courses in 1990

16,052: Number of golf courses in 2005

15,751: Number of golf courses in 2011

15 percent: Share of golf courses that were municipal, as of Jan. 1, 2012

-2.1 percent: Decrease in number of rounds played in Washington, 2010 to 2011

-1.0 percent: Decrease in number of rounds played in Seattle metro area, 2010 to 2011

-2.5 percent: Decrease in number of rounds played nationally, 2010 to 2011

28.8 million: Number of golfers nationally, 2000

25.7 million: Number of golfers nationally, 2011

Source: National Golf Foundation

Low-cost links?

The closure of the nine-hole Ballinger Lake Golf Course means the loss of a low-cost option for local golfers. Most other nearby options are 18-hole courses. A survey of peak rates at other nearby courses:

Ballinger Lake Golf Course (closed), Mountlake Terrace, municipal: $12, nine-hole; $18, 18-hole

Nile Shrine Golf Course, Mountlake Terrace, open to public: $23, nine-hole; $34, 18-hole

Lynnwood Golf Course, Lynnwood, municipal: $19, nine-hole; $34, 18-hole

Harbour Pointe Golf Club, Mukilteo, private club: $45, 18-hole (public rate)

Wayne Public Golf Course, Bothell, municipal: $18, nine-hole; $26, 18-hole

Jackson Park Golf Course, Seattle, municipal: $14, nine-hole; $33, 18-hole

Source: Course websites

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