2020: THE YEAR WE GET SERIOUS ABOUT ADDRESSING THE GAME’S ONLY GENUINE “EXISTENTIAL” CHALLENGE – MUNICIPAL GOLF (REPRINT FROM SCGA – 1 10 2020)

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We like to throw the word, “existential,” around with impunity. We use it to describe challenges of all sorts, many of them minor in nature. We use it to describe a branch of particularly opaque mid-20th Century philosophy, one that George Will once famously dismissed as Jean Paul Sartre’s preference for a philosophy as absurd as his own personal view of life.

But in its generic form, “existential,” is nothing more than the adjective form of existence. And it really should only be used to describe something that goes to the very nature of the existence of the object it describes.

We have used it in this space to describe only one aspect of the game. Not any piece or combination of pieces of legislation; not any regulation or combination of regulations; not any wage/price distention; not any cost/benefit distention; not any environmental criticism; nor any of the myriad legal, regulatory, and public policy challenges we address every day. Yes; these are quite vexing problems! But none of them rises to the level of threatening the existence of the game.

One and only one challenge rises to the level meriting the description, “existential challenge.” And that challenge is the feeding frenzy on the game’s municipal sector. The utility if not the very legitimacy of devoting 100 + acres of green space in the urban cores where America’s affluent populations live, work and recreate is under attack from all quarters – from open space advocates, enthusiasts of other sports (e.g., soccer, baseball, tennis, pickleball), affordable housing advocates, homeless sheltering advocates, “higher and better” uses (e.g., commercial) of public property advocates, habitat restoration advocates; there is no shortage of advocates for turning golf’s spaces into some other kinds of spaces.

Consider the following drawn from recent headlines:

• A major Southern California County proposes to shutter one of the 2 ½ golf courses in a huge regional park and calls the effort a “park expansion project.”
• A major Southern California County repurposes a 54-year old golf course as a major soccer, tennis and STEM center with commercial appurtenances to support them in a region of such high golf demand in proportion to supply that local high school, community college, state university and junior developmental golf programs no longer have anywhere to conduct their activities.
• The Los Angeles County Grand Jury issues a massive report that suggests that municipal golf courses in “park poor” areas be repurposed to meet certain “park” needs. The City and County of Los Angeles savage the report, but it’s the Grand Jury that gets the headlines and poisons golf’s well; the counterarguments get no audience.
• An Assembly Member floats a bill that would amend the 1971 California Park Protection Act to create an exception for municipal (parkland) golf courses for the purpose of converting them into affordable housing sites; the Assembly Member’s press release refers to “these useless public golf courses in my District.”
• An Orange County city plans to turn its 60-year old municipal golf course, which is by all objective measures self-supporting, into a massive commercial project, its City Manager proudly proclaiming in the media that a golf course’s returns are paltry compared to what he has in mind. The project has run into some legal troubles with the Park Protection Act and the Surplus Land Act, as well as objections from the local citizenry, but it’s noteworthy that this city has no plans to commercialize any of its other parks.
• Upon hearing a consultant inform him that his city’s two municipal golf courses are returning monies to the city’s general fund after accounting for all expenses – operational, capital replacement and debt service – the mayor questions whether the net return to the city is enough to continue operation, despite being informed at the same time that these two golf courses are the ONLY city park operations that actually turn a profit.
• A university converts a 55-year old 9-hole public golf course into a massively expensive habitat restoration project using public dollars to complete the project and more dollars to manage it upon completion.
• A Los Angeles County city considers closure of 9 holes of its 36-hole municipal golf complex in order to dedicate the acreage to a commercial use that can make up for the drop from a $2 million net contribution 12 years ago to a mere $1.2 million contribution in today’s diminished golf market. If the golf course cash cow doesn’t continue to provide top of the market milk another use will have to be considered.
• The mayor of a Los Angeles County city seeks to acquire a Los Angeles County 9-hole facility of limited but still measurable financial value to transform it at huge public expense into a passive park requiring annual infusions of taxpayer dollars.

This is a partial list. The headlines are chock full of stories that reflect an anti-golf animus that grows with each passing day – as are some recent letters to the editor. The following one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times December 21 was sufficiently compelling to cause us to violate our rule against sending E-mail updates during Christmas week. It merits repeating for those who missed it:

“Homelessness is only a symptom of a larger problem: The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. As long as political and economic forces exacerbate this concentration, homelessness will worsen. One solution seems simple to me: Open L.A’s many private country clubs to campers with portable toilet services. This seems like a reasonable redistribution of wealth to me. At a minimum, I think homeless encampments should be allowed at city-owned golf courses.”

It’s only one man’s opinion, but the Los Angeles Times found this man’s opinion sufficiently compelling to run it among the hundreds of letters received that week about homelessness, a subject the paper covers almost daily. Homelessness and its companion, affordable housing, now routinely finish 1st in polls of what citizens consider the issue most pressing, and what voters consider most pressing is sure to be addressed by those who owe their offices to those voters. Don’t kid yourselves; this man is hardly alone in his opinion.

Whether a parkland golf course’s closure as “park expansion project” or one man’s opinion that golf courses ought to assume a disproportionate burden of the homelessness problem, golf is adjudged by a different standard than every other park activity as well as every other open space or land conservancy activity, and it is increasingly a standard that is more than just impossible to meet. It’s not really a standard; it’s a road map for excision from urban life.

If you don’t recognize these stories consider adding newspapers, academic journals, general business publications, and books to your reading lists. Golf specific business publications are instructive to be sure, but they are considerably more instructive when put into greater societal context by a broader mix of general publications.

Okay; headlines are instructive. They tell us what is going on, but they don’t tell us why it’s going on. And until we have a grasp on that, it will be hard to know what to do.

The Director took a stab at answering that question all the way back in April 2016 in a piece in FORE magazine. It’s a pretty good “stab.” So, we’ve reproduced it verbatim immediately below. It closes with a question that we’ll try to answer in the light of the four years that have passed since it was posed, an answer that with any luck might provide some guidance as to what we might actually want to consider doing other than dissecting past mistakes, lamenting missed opportunities, and whining about minimal resources.

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