Golf courses continue to close at a rate of about 130 to 150 per year in the U.S. There are myriad reasons, mostly 20 years of overbuilding and demographic changes. Golf isn’t dead, it’s just readjusting to its true core business model.
Meanwhile, all across the U.S., there is a significant shortage of athletic fields. The explosion of female sports teams and an increase in population not nearly stridden with public or private investment in new fields has fueled the shortage. In an age of child obesity and all the related issues, some kids can’t play for lack of playing fields.
Golf can’t find kids for its courses, and kids can’t find fields for their games.
Let’s convert some of the closing golf courses into athletic field complexes. It’s not a new idea, but why don’t we see more of this? It seems obvious.
One of the biggest challenges in building new athletic fields is acquiring land. At 50 to 75 acres, the lower-priced public courses – which make up more than two-thirds of the closures, according to the National Golf Foundation – are perfect for this golf-to-rec sports field conversion.
Challenging land-use issues aren’t eliminated, but they’re significantly diminished. There would be less opposition from conservation groups and less effective competition from commercial development interests. Most importantly, we can get more people out recreating, and if that doesn’t “promote the general welfare,” then I misread the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
It’s more a repurposing than a redevelopment. Much of the infrastructure is already there. Water rights have already been secured. Roads into and out of the golf course already exist. The big groundwater and runoff issues would’ve been addressed long ago – mitigation would seem minimal. Maintenance facilities and equipment are mostly ready to go. Keep the clubhouse, just sell the golf cars and stock retail with sporting goods.
We could strip off and reuse the fairway sod for turfing the fields and surrounds, minimizing another significant cost.
Restaurants and concessions will flourish. Beer carts become concession carts. Instead of postgame parties at the local pizza joint, it will be event rental space, boosting concessions at the clubhouse and restaurant. Jobs will be saved and created, even turf jobs.
Attract revenue-boosting sports tournaments with on-site campsites for families traveling to soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse tournaments. Both the municipality (citizens) and the users get big cost efficiencies from these built-in advantages.
Anytown, USA owns and operates a golf course that is struggling. It plans to close it and sell the land to developers. Layoffs are unavoidable. But what if they keep the land and enter a public-private partnership with the sports leagues and parks departments?
The idea is that the leagues finance the construction of the fields privately in return for secure leases and infrastructure work. The municipality keeps an appropriate chunk of field for less organized community use, and pays for any needed infrastructure upgrades. The city uses assets diverted from golf to operate and maintain the Anytown Sporting Complex.
You see, Anytown needs to construct 20 additional fields in order to have an inventory worthy of the ever-growing demand for field use. But there’s only enough available funding to build maybe five or 10 – that’s if there’s affordable land and they can fight off the inevitable opponents.
Meanwhile, the Anytown Municipal Golf Course is losing money. Fifteen years ago, the Riverside Hills at Anytown Dunes private course opened, and then went public five years ago after the housing bubble burst. The cushy course was built on housing demand, not on golf demand, and now the city of Anytown has no choice but to close the muni course.
I imagine the noisy Anytown council meeting, facing certain realities and tough decisions. Everyone has an opinion, but few solutions are found. Voices elevate.
Then I imagine me in the back of the room, bringing the room to a silence with my fingernails screeching across a blackboard like Quint, the shark hunter in “Jaws.”