Do public golf courses benefit St. George?

ST. GEORGE — Golfing has become increasingly popular in St. George over the last half-decade due to growth and more recently, the pandemic. Public courses the city once subsidized year-after-year are making a profit with tee-times booked up to 30 days or mores

Colby Cowan, director of golf for the city of St. George, speaks about the many ways he believes public golf courses benefit the community, St. George, Utah, March 30, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler. St. George News

“St. George is a golf community, it’s what we’re known for,” said Marc Mortensen, assistant city manager of operations for St. George.

There is a question of whether or not the public golf courses are an actual benefit to the community, or a money-sink that takes valuable funding away from more pressing needs like infrastructure and public safety. Moreover, should a public entity be in competition with private enterprise as it is with golf courses?

For St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, the answer is no.

Tanner, who is newly elected to the City Council, told St. George News in an email: “I think golf is great and I love that we have many private courses here. I however value the proper role of government which does not include competing with the private sector or forcing residents to pay for special interests.”

Since the start of the year, Tanner has objected to the city spending funds for golf cart replacements and the pending renovation of the St. George Golf Club clubhouse. Combined, these items will run the city up to $1.8 million.

Tanner has asked if there was a private solution for the city’s needs versus using taxpayer dollars to support the golf courses.

Other council members and the mayor have been quick to defend the city’s operating the public courses as they are seen as a benefit to the community – but just what is that benefit?

A little history

A view of the Dixie Red Hills Golf Course from the deck of the course’s new clubhouse, St. George, Utah, Aug. 13, 2019 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

Before golf came to St. George, the town was just another stop along Highway 91 for most people. However, once the city’s first golf course started up in the mid-1960s, the floodgates opened for winter tourism and helped paved the way for what eventually became known as a mecca for outdoor recreation.

“St. George (as a destination) was founded years ago on golf with Dixie Red Hills being built in 1965,” said Colby Cowan, director of golf for St. George. “It was one of the main tourist attractions for people coming to the area.”

The golf course proved to be a successful venture for the city and triggered the building of additional courses, such as the privately-run Bloomington Country Club. In additional to other private golf courses across the community, St. George’s own selection of public courses grew to four with the inclusion of Southgate, St. George Golf Club and Sunbrook.

A more detailed history of the Dixie Red Hills Golf Course can be found here.

It was while standing on the balcony of the Southgate clubhouse, with the sight of the golf course behind him, that Cowan spoke with St. George News about the city’s publicly-run golf courses.

What is the benefit of publicly run golf courses?

A woman practices her golf swing at the Southgate Golf Course, St. George, Utah, March 30, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Affordability and general accessibility

According to the National Golf Foundation, the majority of golf courses in the United State – approximately 75% – are publicly operated. The remainder are private clubs and a mix of public-private ventures.

One of the chief differences between a public course and private club is the pricing, Cowan said.

“We are able to keep the price down and keep green fees relatively low,” he said.

Fees at the city golf courses can vary due to their size – nine or 18 holes – the time of year, how many people are playing in a group and whether or not golf carts are used.

For example, from October through May, playing a round of nine holes at the Dixie Red Hills course is $22.50, with an additional $8 per person for golf cart use. A round of 18 holes, which is offered at the city’s other three golf courses, runs $37 with an additional $16 for a cart person. Lower rates are offered between June and September.

In contrast, private golf clubs – which can offer exclusive amenities that public courses do not – can be pricey for most people, Cowan said.

Players compete in Region 10 girls golf match, Southgate Golf Club, St. George, Utah, March 17, 2022 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

For example, membership in one local golf club has initiation fees of up to $5,000 and monthly dues of over $400. Such a membership grants unlimited golfing and access to all the golf resort has to offer. However, the same club also offers a far less expensive version of membership that starts at $200 and grants access to the clubhouse and golf-related activities.

Before becoming the director of golf for St. George 10 years ago, Cowan worked for private golf clubs. Both public and private venues have their advantages and disadvantages and serve particular markets.

“I think we all have our niche market and ours is the residents, the community members,” he said.

Public programs, charity events and tournaments

“I think a lot of the time we forget about what golf can bring to the community,” Cowan said. “We look at revenues and expenditures, which of course are important, but we do so many different programs that are a benefit to the area.”

Among the programs he mentioned was the city’s Junior Association of Golfers program for children and youth 7-17. The city also offers disabled veterans golf lessons through the PGA Hope program.

In addition to these and several other programs, the public courses also play hosts to events and fundraisers organized by local businesses and charities.

St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, St. George, Utah, Feb, 3, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“On an average there are 10 to 16 events we host a year that go to local charities,” Cowan said. “So I think we forget about that sometimes that, aside from being a great sport, there’s an added benefit to having golf courses in our community.”

Another benefit Cowan mentioned is the preservation of open space the community golf courses provide. Without them, that space could have have otherwise been developed for residential or commercial use.

Like the city’s many sports fields that are rented out for various tournaments throughout the year, the public courses also host occasional golf tournaments, Cowan said.

Economic impact and property taxes

So what is the economic benefit these golf courses have to the community? Is the cost of running public courses worth it to the city taxpayers?

“As for economic impact, if you evaluate the financials for the past 10 years of the city golf courses and consider things that aren’t being calculated such as cost of water and employees, this is not a huge revenue source for the city,” Tanner said in her email.

“We do receive visitors and sales tax from visitors who also attend our privately owned golf courses. We also are facing budget issues which we need to prioritize. We have an understaffed police force-fire dept and need for infrastructure to catch up with the growth. We need to increase wages as well in order to attract more officers and account for inflation.”

Golf cart fleet at the Southgate Golf Course, St. George, Utah, March 30, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

A popular argument made by those who support privatization is that if the market demand for affordable, community golf courses is high enough, then that demand will be met one way or another and needn’t involve local government or taxpayer funds.

For many publicly-run golf courses and other recreational facilities, it is not uncommon for cities to subsidize them because it is seen as a fair trade off for the overall benefit to the community, Mortensen said.

“For years there was a decline in golf, but we’re also seen a resurgence in the last few years,” Cowan said, adding he believes fortune turned for the better thanks to the community’s continuing growth and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re actually profitable on these courses,” Mortensen said. “Golf is at an all-time high.”

When the pandemic first started, the golf courses shut down for a couple of weeks and preparations were made to keep the courses and equipment clean and COVID-free , Cowan said.

“Once we reopened, we’ve never been busier frankly,” he said, adding that tee times for rounds of golf are booked up to 30 days out.

St. George golf courses have also seen two record years in a row as far as profitability, he said.

Region 9 golf match, Southgate Golf Club, St. George, Utah, Aug. 27, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

But what is the cost to the city? The city’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget originally put $7.4 million toward the maintenance and management of its four courses. Around $1.8 million was added earlier this year for new golf carts and renovation work on the St. George Golf Club clubhouse.

As for the economic impact of the city’s four golf courses, according to data shared by the Greater Zion Tourism Office, they produced a collective $21 million in overall impact. This number covers not only the amount visitors spent on the golf courses, but also put toward hotel stays, restaurant visits, shopping and so on.

Golf is counted as the third economic driver in Washington County behind Zion National Park and the Tuacahn Center for the Arts.

In 2019, the overall impact was $61 million from 272,000 visitors to the county. That jumped 49% in 2020 to $91 million brought in by over 404,000 visitors. This covers the impact of both public and private golf courses in Washington County.

The money brought in by visitors to the county – of which golf is one of many attractions – also helps keep property taxes low, Cowan said.

One estimate given during a recent St. George City Council meeting is that money generated by tourism to the city and county helps reduce property taxes by $1,400.

“I think there’s a case to be made that (golf) helps our economy and community in general,” Cowan said.

A note on water conservation

A pair of golfers playing a round at the Southgate Golf Course, St. George, Utah, March 30, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While golf course may provide an affordable alternative to private clubs and help bring in tourism dollars, the continuing drought has also put them and other the public facilities in the spotlight of water conservation efforts.

Each of the city’s golf courses is watered by secondary, or irrigation-quality water, Cowan said. This is important as up to 60% of outdoor watering in the county is done with culinary, or drinking-quality water.

While this saves on culinary water use, the city still strives to save water wherever it can, he said. To this end, more efficient water use practices have been put into place.

These practices, Cowan said, have saved up to 88.5 million gallons of water since last summer.

More drought resistant grasses are also being planted on the golf courses, while turf that sits on parts of the course that rarely see any play is being removed, Cowan said.

“We want to be good stewards of water use,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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