Amid a litany of pressing needs that face this city, it was Portland's publicly owned golf courses getting a bailout from Portland City Council this morning.
It turns out that apart from bumming everyone out, the intense winter and spring rains further dampened revenue in Portland's typically self-sustaining fund for operating five golf facilities around town. With the city's current fiscal year set to end June 30, the Golf Fund required $800,000 to finish in the black, as required by law. City Council approved a transfer from the Parks Bureau's budget as part of a routine ordinance shoring up accounts at year's end.
The optics of the move—as Portland hosts a growing homeless population and ongoing housing crisis—were plainly not lost on officials at Portland Parks and Recreation, which runs the golf program.
Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz took time at Wednesday morning's council meeting to acknowledge the bailout, and vowed it would never be repeated—even if she had to suspend the golf program to make that happen.
"The golf fund has in the past been completely self sustaining," Fritz said. "This is the first time general fund resources have been used for the golf program and it will be the last." Fritz said she and Parks Director Mike Abbaté would be taking a detailed look at the issue, and that "all options will be on the table, up to and including suspending the golf program."
Asked about the fund's poor performance this year, Portland Parks and Recreation spokesperson Mark Ross sent along a lengthy account of the fund's issues, which he attributed to the meteorological atrocities the city just suffered through, along with recent down years as golf's popularity wanes.
"Golf had a hard few years and in particular, literally weathered a difficult spring," Ross writes. "The Fund wasn’t able to make up all the ground we had hoped for, and we ended up needing the transfer of funds."
Ross characterizes the $800,000 transfer as a conservative number, meant to give the golf fund plenty of breathing room. He says profits from the golf program in May, once the weather improved, were nearly $228,000.
"The recent weather and robust play on City courses definitely gives reason for optimism," Ross says. "For overall context, it is important to note that we must consider long-term trends—such as those evident over the past 100 years—over recent tendencies."
Over its nearly 100 year history, PP&R says the golf program has been a money maker. Beyond routinely paying for itself, Ross says the program has kicked $4 million into the city's general fund in that time.
Even so, news of this year's downturn comes as some are plotting on Portland's public courses. Willamette Week reported in May that developer Homer Williams and others have suggested converting courses into land for housing.
That sentiment was echoed by some on Twitter earlier today, after we tweeted about the $800,000 transfer.
The middle of a housing crisis, and the City's gotta come up with nearly a cool million to subsidize...the golf program? https://t.co/tQ4Xox6YSj— Brian Davis (@briandavispdx) June 21, 2017
Golf is a dying sport. Know what people are willing to pay for though? Homes! Fortunately, golf courses have lots of underused land! Win-win https://t.co/toufrLy3Hu— alan kessler🌹 (@alankesslr) June 21, 2017
Don't expect the city to sell off its courses quite yet. Despite Fritz's promise that she won't rule out suspending the golf program, Ross laid out a host of steps PP&R plans to take to get it healthy. Those include shuffling five greenskeeper positions elsewhere in the parks bureau, "surplussing more expensive and underutilized equipment, and deferring significant materials purchases until next fiscal year," Ross says.
Through a "Golf Strategic Plan" the bureau is also hoping to sell the sport to new customers, including youth, people of color, and women, Ross says. "We want to expand the sport's reach and better serve Portland's changing demographics simultaneously."