A possible white knight has arrived with a possible, if not distant, solution to the ongoing debate over the future of the Colonial Acres Golf Course: the PGA.
At a budget workshop held by the Bethlehem Town Board tonight, members of the Northeastern New York section of the Professional Golfers’ Association said the group might be able to help find a private operator for the par-3 course. Supervisor John Clarkson’s tentative budget for next year calls for the town to stop funding the course, which has been in the red for two years counting and is projected to lose $40,000 in the 2013 season.
Clarkson has repeatedly said he’d like to see the course at the very least remain open space, or at best continue under private operation. Local members of the PGA approached town officials about the possibility.
The group’s Erik Smith said the NENY-PGA would be interested in inspecting the course and then potentially seeking a manager through its membership. The theoretical entrepreneur could then run the course on a lease to manage basis.
Smith agreed with the town’s assessment that the course is unlikely to be profitable as traditional golfing destination without considerable investments — it lacks a proper clubhouse, carts for general use or even sewer service. He reasoned there could be other uses for the space though, including as a kid-friendly training area. Sitting on 33 acres, it would be easier at Colonial Acres to give lessons to youngsters and keep track of them on the links, he said. Smith said few courses grant more than token access to very young golfers.
“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to grow the game,” he said.
Smith argued since course has no revenue stream besides its flagging greens fees, a major change is the only way to make Colonieal Acres relevant again..
“In order to remain competitive in that area … we have to change the mentality,” he said.
The course has been operated by the town since 2008, and in the first few years of that agreement Bethlehem turned a profit. Then just down the road came Hidden Meadows, an 18-hole, par-3 course with many of the amenities the municipal course lacks. The number of rounds played plummeted—even with last summer’s ideal weather, just 6,662 rounds were played, barely half of the action the course saw in 2008 and only a handful more than the rainy summer of 2011.
There was general agreement between the four Town Board members present at Thursday’s workshop private management of the course should be pursued. When it came to the timeline, however, there was some debate.
Clarkson argued the town should still defund the course when the 2013 budget is adopted next Wednesday. That, he argued, would get the town effectively out of the way and hasten an agreement between a manager and the Open Space Institute, the landowner that leases the course to the town for $1 per year.
But Councilwoman Joann Dawson disagreed, saying the town should make sure a plan is in place for the course’s future before taking it off the books.
“The town’s involvement in Colonial Acres took a long time, it didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “We’re not going to do that in a week, we’re not going to do it in four months. I would hope we could do it in 14 months.”
Councilman Kyle Kotary had a similar outlook. He also pointed out when spread over five years of ownership the course has lost about $15,000, which he reckoned is par for the course for many of the town’s recreational offerings.
“My fear, based on what everyone in golf tells me, is if it sits for a year, it’s done,” he said.
Councilman George Lenhardt pointed out the 2013 tentative budget includes Colonial Acres funding and still carries an 8 percent tax levy increase. That number would likely go up if the course is returned to the budget, or the board would have to find money elsewhere.
Clarkson said after the meeting he would be be speaking with board members individually in the coming day about the course ahead, but he was also clear he believes cutting ties to the course would be the quickest way to effect a positive change.
“I would hope (the PGA) could solve the problem the town can’t … and that’s use of the course,” he said.
Kotary, for one, didn’t see the rush.
“Although the clock is ticking, it doesn’t end on Wednesday, it doesn’t end in April,” he said during the meeting.
If the town does get out of the golf course business, it would be able to reap some benefit from selling off equipment in addition to savings realized from the removal of salaries and other general expenses. The improvements that have already been made, including several structures, will be turned over the Open Space Institute — in reality, they already have been because the town built them on land it does not own.