If the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, Salmon Run golf course officials had better get walking.
That was the advice Jim Keegan, managing principal of Golf Convergence, gave the City Council Monday night.
The golf course, built by the Claveran Group, has been struggling for years to realize a profit, and a mixture of hurdles is tripping it up.
Keegan, who said he has visited 41 countries and more than 4,000 golf courses, said the Brookings public course’s problems started with the feasibility study conducted 20 years ago.
“This was all cast in a time when golf was booming,” Keegan said. “The euphoria, the emotions, all got ahead of financial logic.”
The town took half the amount of the course’s rent this year – $15,000 – and hired Golf Convergence to conduct a new evaluation. That included finances, user demand and satisfaction, water issues and what the city and course officials can do to make it profitable.
When the local course was built, golf was a booming sport. The Professional Golf Association said demand for the sport necessitated a course be built every day for a year in the United States.
That interest has faded, although the industry has implemented new programs to get seniors, women and lapsed golfers back into the sport.
In the past six years, more courses have closed nationwide than have opened, Keegan said.
Yet, Salmon Run is extremely popular and has a loyal following. Eighty percent of those who have played the course would recommend it to a friend, compared to a national average of 26 percent at other courses.
But the course, he said, needs to attract about 1,700 golfers each season, not the 1,000 it does today.
Brookings is too remote to entice golfers to drive here – especially with gas prices as high as they are. The area needs more “resort” hotels, and the regional market is saturated with courses.
There are, Keegan said, seven courses within a 50-mile radius that could financially support three.
Three holes need to be redesigned, and wild vegetation – primarily non-native blackberries – need to be trimmed back, if not eradicated.
The addition of a driving range and clubhouse would attract even more golfers, Keegan said. But it won’t be easy – or cheap.
“He (principal owner Steve Muir) has got a challenge in this marketplace,” Keegan said. “He’s doing the best he can with a bad hand. And the decisions you face are actually very difficult.”
The most immediate challenge is how to draft a new lease between the golf course owners and the city, which owns the land.
Under the terms of the initial lease, the golf course paid no “rent” for the land for 12 years; it was later granted a two-year extension.
And now, with revenue down and the lease ready to be renegotiated, it can’t afford the rent.
Keegan believes the best solution would be for the city to enter into a partnership with the course.
“I always know who to bet on in a horse race, and I always bet on a horse called ‘Self-Interest’,” he said. “There is a solution to make this golf course work.”
If the city were to waive the rent for another 10 years, he said, the Claveran Group would be willing to pay for the infrastructure to address the water problems.
Salmon Run has water issues, that, while complicated, can be fixed, Keegan said.
The golf course has no water rights – it has an annual agreement with Freeman Rock – but the city has an abundance.
If the city were willing to deed some of those rights to the golf course, the Claveran Group could build a water diversion pipe from one of the creeks that runs through the course to the fourth hole to supply the greens.
Keegan said there are plenty of volunteers willing to use town heavy equipment to cut back the encroaching shrubs.
“That will make for a kinder, gentler, user-friendly place,” he said.
Councilor Dave Gordon joked he doesn’t use a score card when he plays. He counts the balls he has before and after a game to figure out how well he did.
“We’ve done our homework on this,” said Ron Hedenskog, who was appointed mayor just prior to the golf presentation. “We’ve been virtually unsuccessful to this point.”
Some of the councilors were wary of providing funds to a private entity, even if the amenity it provides is available to the public. Others view the waiver of rent, and thus, the deficit of funds to the city, as a subsidy.
“Without a question, the golf course is an asset; it is needed,” said councilor Jake Pieper. “The golf course is the sole reason some people move to the city; they’ve chosen to retire here.
“But,” he added, “the further defering of rent is subsidizing. That’s a line I’m not willing to cross.”
Keegan said it could be possible to ask golfers to pay a yearly fee toward upkeep of the facility, even though the average income of golfers here hovers around $32,000 a year, compared to $75,000 in other communities.
“This isn’t a park for children. This isn’t an orphanage, or an after-school activity or a city park, Pieper said. “This is a park for well-to-do people. It serves the upper crust of this community. This isn’t a poor man’s game. (But) that’s who we’re asking taxpayers to give a break to.”
Councilor Brent Hodges said he views the course as comparable to other amenities the city helps fund.
“It’s the same as the municipal pool,” he said. “Azalea Park is used by the community. I don’t see it as a subsidy; I see it as helping a community asset.”
Gordon had mixed feelings.
“I see this as a partnership,” he said, noting that the land was donated by the South Coast Lumber Co., for recreational use. “One-sixth of our population plays golf. We don’t spend money on the land. But I have a problem when a private company takes city assets and makes a profit.”