Children practice golf at the city of Dayton’s Madden Golf course. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Dayton golf had a good 2019, but future is cloudy

After years of declines, the city of Dayton’s golf courses last year saw solid growth in revenue and rounds played, but concern about their future remains.

2019 was a good year for golf in Dayton because of good weather, a stable economy and modest changes to off-season rates and passes, said Robin Williams, Dayton’s director of Recreation and Youth Services.

“We focus on making golf affordable and available to everyone,” Williams said. “With our six golf courses, we truly have something for everyone, and we continue to focus on offering great programs, leagues, outings and promotions for underutilized time.”

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But the golf division’s finances hit a rough patch years ago and remain a concern for some city officials and leaders, and golf operations continue to receive money from the general fund.

The city’s golf courses are declining because of age, deferred maintenance, declining demand and aging infrastructure, according to some officials and a golf consultant.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the golf division should be self-sustaining and not require a general fund subsidy, and the city likely has to do something different because the courses need considerable investment.

“Golf courses across the region are struggling, and so these are trends that are problematic for us,” she said.

City officials are reviewing a recently completed report by an outside consultant that examines city’s three golf facilities’ conditions and needs, and lays out recommendations for investments.

Dayton City Commissioner Jeffrey Mims Jr., an avid and accomplished golfer, said golf teaches young people important skills sets that are useful for professional development, and playing the sport can result in scholarships, and successful progressive communities need a diverse recreational opportunities to attract and retain talent and people.

He said the city faces tough decisions about its golf courses, but he believes the city can grow the game to improve its financial situation, and it may be worth continuing to subsidize golf in Dayton.

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In 2019, the city’s golf division saw an 11% increase in revenue and an 8% increase in rounds played at its facilities: Kittyhawk Golf Center, Community Golf Club and Madden Golf Course.

Golf revenue increased to about $3.06 million last year from $2.74 million in 2018.

Customers played 148,543 rounds of golf, nearly 11,000 more than in 2018. It was the most rounds played since 2015, when golfers played 154,247 rounds.

Until last year, golf rounds had decreased every year since at least 2013, possibly longer. The decreases are in line with some long-running national trends of declining interest in playing the traditional game.

Golf participation declined for about 14 straight years, until 2018, says the National Golf Foundation. There has, however, been growth in off-course forms of golf, such as Topgolf, Drive Shack and indoor simulators, the foundation said.

Dayton’s golf division’s revenues have not kept up with expenditures in recent years.

Golf had an approved budget subsidy of $446,400 in 2019, $372,700 in 2018, $567,500 in 2017 and $501,000 in 2016, city data show.

2015 was the last year when the operations had no budgeted subsidy.

The $446,000 budgeted subsidy last year included $200,000 for operating costs, $86,400 for a capital equipment purchase of golf carts, $60,000 for tree removal improvements and $100,000 for a capital equipment lease that has not been finalized, officials said.

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The city has no planned operating subsidy for 2020, but at the end of last year, $100,000 was transferred to golf from the general fund to help fund a three-year lease for equipment, beginning this year, said Williams.

Golf ended 2019 with a small deficit of $47,614, which was covered by general fund dollars, she said.

Dayton’s courses have operated close to break-even, not counting capital and debt expenses, Williams said, but golf is an enterprise fund that should operate and make investments with no general fund subsidy.

Achieving that goal, like the game of golf itself, has been challenging.

“Operating in the black has become increasingly more and more difficult due to our aging infrastructure, (deferred) maintenance, increased operating costs and declining demand for golf in our region,” Williams said. “As we move forward, we need to look at ways to reduce our physical footprint to align with demand.”

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The golf business’ bottom line is affected by many variables that are out of the city’s control, including weather, time, discretionary income and the economy, Williams said.

But some kind of realignment hopefully will help the city offer a better product for golfers and make the division sustainable for years to come, officials said.

The National Golf Foundation has completed a study of the city’s golf courses and facilities and provided a 138-page report to the city with findings and recommendations. City officials are expected to discuss the report soon.

Whaley said whatever the city does, it should do well, and that’s not been true of golf.

The city recently transferred of ownership of the Dayton Convention Center because it was not doing a good job of operating the facility on its own, Whaley said.

The city likely needs to do something different when it comes to golf, Whaley said.

She said the city will soon re-evaluate its courses and operations to figure out how to address their issues, most notably, their large capital investment needs.

Mims, who was the citywide golf champion in 2012 and the Fairway Golf Club champion in six of the last 10 years, says Dayton has a responsibility to provide quality-of-life options to citizens.

Recreation is on par with public safety and education for its importance to creating a high-quality community, and it’s crucial to provide a variety of options and opportunities, he said.

Golf is an enjoyable leisure-time activity, but it, like other sports and extracurricular activities, also helps build character and develop skills in young people like discipline and team work, Mims said.

Mims said he believes Dayton can increase participation in the game and develop more players, possibly by getting the schools more involved and engaged.

He said the city will be looking closely at golf.

“Realistically, we are going to have to find a better way of doing what we’re doing in that area,” he said.

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