When Santa Barbara’s Municipal Golf Course opened 58 years ago, area historians would later conclude that the event signified the emergence of a middle class big enough to sustain a sport that had hitherto been the exclusive domain of the leisure class. In coming weeks, the City Council will be forced to ponder what the steady decline of paying customers signifies and what can be done about it. One choice is for the city’s general fund to underwrite the cost of the golf course, up until now paid exclusively from the city’s Golf Enterprise Fund. Another is whether City Hall should farm out the links to a private contractor to keep the greens in the black.
According to Parks and Recreation czar Nancy Rapp, the number of people playing golf has been dropping steadily — both nationally and locally — at the same time a number of new courses have come on line. Golfers in general are also getting older, and despite efforts by city recreational officials to stimulate interest in younger players, they are playing fewer rounds. At its height, the Muni Course saw more than 100,000 rounds a year. Recently, it’s dipped to 62,000. But it must still be maintained. As a result, Rapp said, the Municipal course has been forced to dip increasingly into reserves. She said the account now hovers at around $275,000 when it should be at $570,000. If current trends continue, she predicted, the reserves would be blown within 12-18 months.
Currently, the city contracts out the restaurant operation at the Muni links as well as the golf pro shop. Both of those contracts come due in 2016. Should City Hall seek to contract out the consolidated operation, 2016 would clearly be the time to do so. Currently, 11 city workers are employed to maintain the course. None of them would reportedly lose their job if the contract-out option were pursued. Instead, they’d be absorbed into the Parks and Recreation Department until retirement, while their positions would be phased out. In the meantime, Rapp said her department was investigating other ways to generate traffic and revenue from the 105-acre facility. Other cities have embraced something called “foot-golf,” a fusion of soccer and golf in which the players kick the ball into an 18-inch hole. Likewise, she said, Frisbee golf is being explored.