Muni layouts needed for healthy, open space

Aspen Golf Club, No. 21 on Golfweek's Best list of Municipal Courses.

Aspen Golf Club, No. 21 on Golfweek's Best list of Municipal Courses.

In an age of cash-strapped governments and over-taxed citizens, it’s good to be suspicious about municipalities. That’s especially the case when it comes to golf. Town councils and parks departments are not the most efficient managers of public assets. And yet under the right circumstances, a municipal golf course can make sense as a community asset.

Start with this year’s British Open venue, St. Andrews’ Old Course. It’s now part of a seven-course operation that is owned and controlled by the Scottish town of St. Andrews for the benefit of its citizens. The result is very much a public-park atmosphere, with residents and visitors congregating behind the 18th green or walking on Granny Clark’s Wynd, crossing the first and last holes, so they can get to the beachfront to the east. The benefit to the town is that a public recreational amenity has been preserved on land that might otherwise have been parceled out for private residential or commercial development.

A similar, park-like atmosphere appears at Chambers Bay in University Park, Wash., opened in 2007. There, Pierce County officials converted an old, abandoned gravel quarry into a park that includes a golf course good enough to stage the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open. Though there has been controversy that the golf course itself has been losing money of late, the calculus doesn’t include the value of a walking- and bicycle-trail system as part of the 993-acre complex that’s used by an average of 2,000 people daily spring through fall.

Had the county not reclaimed the land for the golf course and park, it still would have had to spend $5 million building a wastewater-treatment field that would have yielded no revenue. So now, for a total of $22.7 million, residents have a gem of a public asset that sits on Puget Sound and has become a landmark for the community and an internationally recognized destination.

Pioneer municipal courses such as Van Cortlandt Park in New York City (1895) and Franklin Park in Boston (1896) got their starts as part of a widespread urban movement that swept the country more than a century ago. The sudden explosion of city population, coupled with the unregulated expansion of industrial manufacturing, led to grimy big-city conditions, ghetto-like housing without proper ventilation and sanitation, and an unhealthy citizenry. The need for healthy outdoor recreation was expressed by a range of activists, including park planner Frederick Law Olmsted, urban reformer Jacob Riis and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Golf in this country was overwhelmingly a private-club matter. Outside of a handful of resorts, the everyday sports enthusiast had little chance to learn the game except in the caddie yards. Publicly sponsored golf became a way of bringing the game to the masses. By the 1930s, golf-course development also was a good make-work program.

Ambitious projects such as the then-four-course complex at Bethpage State Park on Long Island weren’t the only ones that materialized. All through the American West, local and federal governments built basic nine-hole layouts. By the post-World War II era, the emphasis shifted as municipal-course development became part of suburban town planning, with golf embedded in a wider network of facilities that included swimming pools, ball fields and open space. In some cases, such areas double as stormwater-retention basins. In other words, municipal golf always was part of a larger public vision.

That vision has been lost today. The critics of municipal golf point to operating deficits at the course itself as evidence of management incompetence. Or they argue that private owners are unfairly discriminated against because municipalities enjoy tax advantages and access to land that private owners don’t have.

There certainly are overly ambitious municipalprojects that overshoot their goals and lose money because of gaudy clubhouses. But the debate about the merits and problems of municipal golf is hollow and one-sided unless it also accounts for the element of public good, of enhancing the overall value of the community.

Cost-benefit analysis always has been unable to put a price tag on public interest. Of course it’s a controversial notion, one that’s inherently political and contestable. Such claims always should be scrutinized. And given today’s economic and tax climate, excessive caution is a good idea. But there is a place for a well-run, carefully managed municipal golf course. I wouldn’t argue that more are needed, but I would argue that most of them can be made to work.

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