In the rough at Riverside: Portland seeks help to improve muni golf course

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PORTLAND — Declining membership, financial losses, and questions in recent years about management of the municipal golf course have the city seeking an outside consultant to evaluate the course.

The goal is to improve both the management of Riverside Municipal Golf Course and the quality of play, City Manager Mark Rees said. Consultants have until Thursday, April 26, to bid on the job.

The links, which consists of an 18-hole course known as the North course, a nine-hole course called the South course, and a three-hole practice course, are run as an enterprise system, Rees said: in theory, revenues from membership and greens fees should cover the costs of operating the facility.

But in recent years, that hasn’t always happened, despite shifting some staff to temporary seasonal positions and cutting expenses by about $200,000 since 2006.

In fiscal 2011, Riverside’s revenues came up nearly $80,000 short of its expenses following the expiration of a lease for Bogey’s Bar and Grill.

By the end of the five-year lease in April 2011, Bogey’s owner Ted Everest had stopped paying rent, and the city was forced to negotiate with him to recover $12,800 in past rent and utility fees. The city had been owed closer to $22,000.

Afterwards, the city called for new proposals from private managers, but ultimately decided to run the North course clubhouse restaurant itself. The staff of the Barron Center, an elder-care facility also operated by the city, took over the renamed Through the Woods restaurant. The arrangement seems to be working, Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky said.

At the same time the restaurant operations were changing, City Councilor John Anton said he thought the city should explore the prospect of contracting course management duties to a private company. The idea met fierce opposition from golfers and didn’t go far.

Rees said an outside review now would help city officials know whether they’re on the right track to “at least break even and maybe even start making money.”

Turmoil at the restaurant aside, club membership has declined from more than 500 four years ago to about 400 today, Bobinsky said. The total number of rounds played at the course has remained relatively steady, hovering around 31,000 per year, but Riverside’s total revenues have declined from more than $1 million in fiscal 2008 to $863,000 in fiscal 2011. 

The economic meltdown of the last half decade and some wet summers have contributed to the declining revenues, Rees said.

Bobinsky believes a revenue-vs.-expense assessment of the course is too simplistic.

“I think we need to look at how we assess our municipal recreational facilities,” he said. Other city parks and swimming pools don’t generate revenue to cover their own operating costs, he noted.

During winter months, when golf clubs are usually packed safely away, Riverside is open to the public for ice skating and sledding, and the course features miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails.

“Is that not a public good?” Bobinsky asked.

But some golfers argue that the state of the course has as much to do with its declining membership and revenue as the economy.

On the North course, renovations are needed in the clubhouse restaurant and men’s locker room and restrooms, Bobinsky said. Those projects were earmarked for Capital Investment Project funds in 2010, he said, but the money was not available until a year later. The renovations should take place later this year.

The most vocal critics tend to be members of the South course.

“The South course condition has varied over the years from fair to poor,” Robert and Lois Steele wrote in an email. The couple said they and their regular golf partners decided not to renew their course membership last year because of that and a hike in membership fees.

They may rejoin this year, but if the course conditions – which include missing women’s tee boxes on some holes and strong-smelling portable toilets near the small South course clubhouse – are not improved, it will mark the end of their membership, they said.

South course member Janet Daigle has made Riverside’s welfare something of a personal mission, with repeated emails to Bobinsky, Rees, and city councilors about her own recommendations and demands.

Daigle takes issue with nearly every aspect of the city’s management of the course, from what she calls poor signage and marketing efforts, to missed revenue opportunities from “lumber operations” on the course during the off season.

The South course pro shop, an ancient log-cabin style building that the Public Services Department is working to replace – plans for a new pro shop are in the review stage – is a particular source of Daigle’s displeasure.

Moving the pro shop from the side of the South course parking lot to a space in part of the current lot would reduce drainage problems and actually result in a more orderly parking lot, Bobinsky said.

In emails to city officials and at an April 4 finance committee meeting, Daigle called the move “beyond asinine,” and argued that it would create a safety hazard for children and golfers.

The portable toilets that serve as the South course’s only restrooms are another favorite target for Daigle.

Permanent restrooms with running water were once located in the South course pro shop; the septic system failed about six years ago, Bobinsky said. “The city has not invested in that site,” he said.

The new pro shop will include functioning restrooms, but in the meantime, it is not unusual for a golf course to offer portable toilets, he said. “In the case of the South course, that’s all there is,” Bobinsky admitted. “It’s a legitimate concern for our patrons.” 

Last Friday, Portland golfer Matt Lakin played two rounds on the South course with three other friends. Lakin bought a membership to the South course for the first time this year and said that he preferred its informal aura to stuffier, more stereotypical private courses, and that he didn’t care what the pro shop is like or where it is.

As Lakin’s foursome marched to the third hole, an obvious stench grew, lifted by a steady breeze. It came not from the portable toilet at the edge of the fairway, but from a far more permanent course neighbor – the city dump.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Golfers walk off the Riverside Municipal Golf Course nine-hole South course towards its small log-cabin style pro shop last week in Portland. Replacement of the clubhouse is one element city officials and some course patrons disagree about as officials continue to seek an outside consultant to evaluate course operations.

Riverside Municipal Golf Course fees

Membership fees for Riverside Municipal Golf Course vary. Full membership to the 18-hole North course costs $750 for Portland residents and $935 for non-residents; full memberships to the nine-hole South course are $485 for residents and $600 for non-residents.

Greens fees range from as low as $18 for a nine-hole weekday resident junior’s pass on the South course to $36 for a weekend 18-hole non-resident’s round on the North course.