Brigantine has taken the first step to ease the financial burden of its municipal golf course, but a declining industry and internal strife may hinder the move.
The Links at Brigantine Beach, with its 2.7 acres of gently rolling greens, was acquired by the city in 2002 for $4.3 million — with the help of $800,000 in state grants — to preserve open space and provide another revenue stream.
For years, the course was self-sustaining and even profitable. At its peak in 2007, the course brought in $2 million. However, the combined effect of a hurricane, a recession and mounting infrastructure costs have cut revenue by more than half. Now, taxpayers face the prospect of absorbing its $765,000 operating deficit. Brigantine would have to repay the $800,000 in grants if it chose to develop the property, something no official has endorsed.
“I have no issue with us keeping it, but I don’t believe the city should run it because we’re playing with taxpayer money,” said Councilman Anthony Pullella, who has advocated leasing the property to a third-party operator.
This week, the city is soliciting bids for a consultant to help attract prospective operators, a process officials say could take about six months. Such a company would be asked to invest $2 million or more to improve the course in exchange for a long-term lease of up to 24 years.
But a volatile golf industry could make finding an ideal candidate difficult.
According to a recent report by the National Golf Foundation, the industry has lost 5 million players in the last decade, and hasn’t attracted enough golfers under the age of 35 to replace those who have retired from the game.
When it opened in 1927, The Links was a favorite among professionals due to its windswept location. Today, however, it has to compete with more than a dozen newer courses that sprang up across New Jersey during the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Links still benefits from inexpensive fees, proximity to Atlantic City and a gentler climate — cooler in summer, warmer in winter — than the mainland courses. However, it became known for the ponds that form after even moderate rainfall due to poor drainage.
Since Hurricane Sandy, the city has financed several projects to improve drainage and hired an architect to develop a master plan for the course.
A preliminary cost analysis by architect Stephen Kay put construction costs at nearly $2.4 million over the next five years. That could end up closer to $3 million after labor and inflation.
Kay said drainage and irrigation issues are just one component. To make the course competitive again, he said, additional work on the holes, bunkers and tees will be needed.
“The analogy I made to (the city) is if you have a movie theater,” he said, “you can have nice seats and a newer bathroom, but if you keep showing bad movies people aren’t going to come.”
According to Kay’s preliminary report, a more ambitious renovation of The Links would cost $4.6 million.
While there are still golf management companies expanding their roster of courses, even an investment of $3 million isn’t realistic, said Gary Shea, a Brigantine resident who runs a golf vacation company.
“Some of the numbers being tossed around are ridiculous,” he said. “Anyone in a longterm lease is not going to want to put up more than the course is worth.”
Shea said the overarching trend seems to favor Brigantine’s plan. Ron Jaworski’s company, for instance, owns a handful of courses across South Jersey including Blue Heron Pines in Galloway Township.
It’s less expensive, Shea said, for a single company to spread maintenance and marketing costs across several courses. Larger companies can also weather a bad season better than a municipality or a single-course operator.
But the city may need to rein-in expectations, he said. Such an operator would not absorb the remaining debt service — Brigantine still owes nearly $2 million on the course — or guarantee low rates indefinitely.
Pullella said several firms have already expressed interest in The Links, but the true test will be when the final request for proposal is released.
Not everyone in Brigantine agrees with the plan, though.
Mayor Phil Guenther said he’s not convinced that the course needs such an intensive overhaul. He’s proposed continuing operations with a municipality funded improvement budget similar to what’s done with street paving.
With a longterm lease, Guenther said, there’s a danger the city could end up locked into a contract with a bad operator. He also worries that anyone willing to invest would increase fees to the point that local players are priced out.
Shea said Guenther’s final point is true, to some extent, but it isn’t in the best interest of a new operator to anger loyal players. It’s more likely the company would operate at a loss in the short term while they build a player base, he said.
Guenther also said he believes the city may be rushing into this based on the unusually bad year after Sandy.
According a report filed by Meadowbrook, the current management firm, The Links’ revenue has actually increased 51 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same period last year. However, the same period saw rounds played decrease more than 10 percent.
The disparity was the result of Meadowbrook extending discounted rates through the spring of 2013 to increase playership, said Nathan Robbins, The Links' general manager.
City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said the city has had to walk a fine line in its approach to The Links. While the course does need improvement, she said, the debate makes the course sound worse than it actually is.
“The Links is in beautiful condition but, like all golf courses, it has to be kept up,” she said.
Robbins said he’s optimistic The Links will sustain increased revenue through the end of 2014. Later this spring, it will also debut a “foot golf course,” a kind of hybrid of golf and soccer played by individuals.
“We really believe this will give us the opportunity to attract people who might not otherwise have considered going to a golf course,” he said. “And hopefully, one day, we’ll get them to convert to a traditional golfer.”
Robbins said Meadowbrook may consider pursuing the longterm lease, but so far has kept a “wait and see” approach. Like most of the interested parties, he said, that decision will be determined by what the city outlines in its request for proposals.
“That’s when you separate the people with an interest from the people with a serious interest,” he said.
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