Munis Under Fire

The Globe and Mail had an interesting — if sloppy — article on the push in Winnipeg to close its municipal golf courses. Since I’ve just finished writing a feature on the situation, which became noticed when London discussed closing one of its munis  earlier this year. Now London never talked of closing all of them, as the Globe story indicates, another example of why one might want someone familiar with the sport to write this kind of story. I once worked alongside Siri Agrell at the National Post, and she has a lot of journalist skills — but writing about golf ain’t one of them.

The story lacks a lot of context, despite comments from Golf Canada’s Scott Simmons that munis still have a place. I’ll give Scott credit — he grew up playing one in Brantford, so he’s being genuine about this, though his remark about crying should Winnipeg develop its money-losing courses seems a bit much.

The problem is these stories always look to the U.S. situation, saying that the cities in the U.S. were trying to sell their municipal courses and pointing to the problems facing golf south of the border, almost all of which is related to the slump in real estate. Maybe there are actually 70 munis for sale in the U.S. — but I’ve never read that anywhere.

The basic problem facing Winnipeg is common across the country, something I discovered while writing this recent feature. Supply of affordable public golf has increased, and most munis were built when private golf clubs dominated. That’s not the case any longer. So Winnipeg is dumping hundreds of thousands to keep their courses open while some private operator is competing with the public purse. Its a tough spot.

The story also references Thunder Bay. Apparently the mayor of Thunder Bay actually told council that London, Ont. was selling its munis and that his city should follow. Of course that wasn’t the case, but a lousy summer, and the continued use of unionized workers drives up the costs to make it exceptionally difficult for a place like Thunder Bay to not lose money on its courses. Take away the high-priced grass cutters and green fee takers and they get a lot closer to making money.

Truthfully cities that close their munis probably just shuffle costs somewhere less obvious. Ever heard of a city worker at a park losing their unionized job? I suspect cities might sell their courses and just move the employees somewhere else in the city. After all, parks don’t really make money, now do they?

Of course the Globe touches on this without actually coming up with anything nearing an answer:

At Kildonan Park, one of the city-run courses, Jake Warkentin was playing his first round of the season on Thursday. In his 70s, Mr. Warkentin has been playing the course for years and is fond of its low price and proximity to downtown.

“I cannot see how they lost millions of dollars. Where did it go?” he asked.

I’ll tell you they lost money by paying guys who cut grass $25 an hour or more and allowing them holidays in the summer. It is a mess.

That said, there are cities in Canada that make a boat load of cash off their munis — just look to Toronto or Mississauga, both of whom make more than $1 million annually off their municipal courses.

Do munis still have a place in the golf landscape? I wonder about that. But they do offer valuable recreation at an affordable price, and I bet if every hockey area owned by a municipality had to make a profit, there wouldn’t be many arenas open.

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Jeff Lancaster

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • If these government supported facilities are affecting private business they need to take a good hard look and do what is right. If you spend millions of dollars building a government run course and they undercut local operators well that is just wrong.

  • Agree with above comments – There is a place for governments to be involved in business but, only when the private sector can not service the public. A public airline, broadcaster, rail service and perhaps golf courses all made sense at a time and or place but not now.

    A colleague of mine recently took over management of a municpal course after years in privatge industry and is simply shaking his head. Unfortunately, do to labour regulations, it is difficult for a private operator to come in and take over a union shop and cut costs. Contracts must be maintained etc. The only solution would be for the cities to pay whopping severence packages to the grass cutters or literally turning the courses into parklands.

    While the Niagara area courses are hurting for a variety of reasons, was there really a need for Parks Canada to expand the supply? How many courses are for sale/in receivorship down there? From selfish point of view, its great as I can play a few nice courses for 50% of what they were charging on opening.

    Hamilton and Burlington are just two cities who have explored the idea of eliminating their golf operations but, at the end of the day continue to run them. Why? No one can run them for profit based on the cost model. This is not say they couldn’t be run for a profit under another model.


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