Brigantine's municipal-owned golf course, acquired in 2002 to generate revenue and preserve open space, has become a financial albatross.
The Links at Brigantine Beach initially was profitable, but a combination of declining usage and mounting infrastructure costs - both exacerbated by October's Hurricane Sandy - has forced the city to re-examine its investment.
In 2008, the course boasted more than 31,000 rounds played and a fund balance of $840,000. Five years later, that surplus has evaporated and The Links will likely end this year with less than half the usage. As of June 30, only 7,531 rounds had been played.
Last year, the city absorbed The Links' $43,000 operating deficit. In the first six months of 2013, its projected shortfall grew by nearly $141,000 over the same period last year, according to city budget documents.
Brigantine still owes nearly $2.3 million between principal and interest on The Links' mortgage. Because the city received $800,000 in state Green Acres funding to preserve the land, it cannot subdivide and develop the 185-acre course.
"The money has to be used for the good of all taxpayers in New Jersey," said City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal, who took over her position last year. "We'd have to pay back all the Green Acres money. It's just not realistic."
Other golf courses, both private and government-owned, experienced similar financial struggles, but many have rebounded in recent years. Last year, Egg Harbor Township's McCullough's Emerald Golf Links saw its revenue increase 17 percent to more than $1.4 million after a period of decline.
In Brigantine, a steering committee is investigating the problem, but most solutions would require major capital investments from either the city or a third-party operator.
"Unless we have revenues to cover expenses this year and the deficit last year, we will be looking at more support from the current fund," Blumenthal said. "That's taxpayer dollars."
Built in 1927 by Scottish golf course architect Wayne Stiles, The Links was once one of the premier courses in the region. At the time, professional golfers practiced in Brigantine to prepare for wind-swept greens typically used for the British Open.
A succession of owners - most recently, the city itself - tended to perform maintenance on an as-needed basis. Competition from newer golf courses also cut into revenue until the The Links was put up for sale. The city purchased the property in 2002 and hired Meadowbrook Golf Inc. to manage operations.
Drainage is the key problem.
"The bottom line is: You can't drain flat," said Nathan Robbins, The Links' general manager. "Whether you grade a golf (course) or the front lawn of a home, you need to provide a slope for water to move where you want it to move."
The Links developed a reputation for the "lakes" that develop after heavy rains. Often, it has had to restrict golf carts to the paved paths due to soft or saturated ground.
Sandy worsened the problem, Robbins said. Its storm surge covered parts of the course in more than 4 feet of saltwater, filling drainage channels with sand and debris. Saltwater killed the grass, and a cold, rainy winter and spring delayed repairs.
The hurricane prompted the city to address part of the drainage problem.
"We cleared out the drainage ditches on the shoulders of the course that we've been trying to clear out for 10-plus years," Robbins said. "As a result, many of our holes are draining significantly better."
Robbins said drainage issues remain, since some pipes under the course likely have been clogged or crushed over decades of use. Similarly, he said, the clubhouse roof still needs to be repaired.
If Brigantine wants to boost revenue, he said it may need to renovate and expand the clubhouse. Its dining room can't accommodate a full outing of 144 people.
Putting a price on such improvements is not an exact science.
Councilman Tony Pullella said a 2005 study put the cost between $1.5 million and $2 million. Accounting for inflation and continued damage over the intervening eight years, he estimates the cost now is probably between $2.5 million and $3 million.
The city is considering a $281,000 bond that would replace golf course equipment destroyed in Sandy and initial improvements to the clubhouse and greens.
"I don't have have an issue with bonding money like this in an emergency situation," Pullella said. "However, this is a Band-Aid, and (The Links) needs heart surgery."
Pullella has put forth a plan to hire a consulting architect to look at what improvements will be needed. Using the architect's recommendations, the city would enter into a long-term, 20- or 25-year lease with a third-party operator who would make the necessary investments.
"They will incur the cost of capital improvements, all of the maintenance and whatever it takes to make this a quality, competitive course," he said. "Thereby minimizing the tax liability on taxpayers."
Not everyone agrees.
"Redesigning the course would probably be a two-year process, at least," said Councilman Andrew Simpson, who represents the ward in which The Links is located. "So who pays for that time we're shut down?"
And mortgage payments would continue during that time, he said.
Joe Dempsey, a 60-year-old resident who lives near the course, said he's happy with the improvements made after Sandy and doesn't want the city to "throw money down the drain" turning it into a state-of-the-art course. "Not many people pay $150 to play golf in this economy," he said.
Anne Philips, of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association, said the issue requires serious attention because "taxpayers should not be subsidizing a golf course."
The ultimate question is whether the amount needed to refurbish the course realistically can be made back, said Gary Shea, a resident who sells package golfing tours in the region. He said he's had a difficult time attracting players to Brigantine with so many newer, better maintained facilities in South Jersey.
"Golf is a very risky business," he said. "Guys don't buy golf courses because they're looking to get rich."
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Brigantine Golf Course Utility fund balance