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City Golf Courses: Not Open for Discussion?

Regular users of the City of Toronto’s five public golf courses know that our Parks & Recreation department has been conducting an operational review of our courses. The City has held a virtual community consultation meeting for each course: Scarlett Woods, Humber Valley, Don Valley, Dentonia Park, and Tam O’Shanter. I’ve been keeping an eye on these consultations and having discussions with engaged local residents and people in the world of golf course design. I have some opinions about what we should do to revamp our golf courses and maybe even see them start to bring in some revenue for our city. Unfortunately, my ideas don’t seem to have any place in the conversation our Parks department is leading. In fact, they are firmly identified as “not open for discussion”.

A slide from the presentation given at the City's public consultations held as part of the golf course operational review. Some of of the ideas I think we need to pursue were not open for discussion.

For those who are not golfers, it should be noted that Toronto is not exactly swimming in public golf courses. There is one in Scarborough, one in North York, one along the subway line in the east end, and two in Etobicoke. While our public courses did see a slight uptick in games played during the pandemic, they have been on a steady decline for the past few years. This decline in registered games is a bit mystifying to me. I know that whenever I try to hit the driving range on a weekend, I can barely make it into the parking lot. The courses around the edges of our city are regularly packed, so why doesn’t this interest translate into more bookings at our public courses? What I’ve learned is that golf interests are changing, and our public courses aren’t keeping pace with these new trends. Other courses, some of them publicly owned in other cities, offer golf simulator lounges, heated driving ranges, and restaurants capacble of hosting a charity gala. Many of these changes are being driven by a new, younger group of golfers who will keep this sport alive and keep our courses viable.

This incredible two-storey driving range at a public course in Burnaby, BC shows an innovative way to generate more revenue from our golf courses.

There is a big difference between golfers my age and older and the new wave of young golfers. Here is what I learned about older golfers on public courses, by and large:

  1. If you are healthy, you make the time for a four hour, 18-hole game.

  2. If you are able, you take time to play without renting a cart.

  3. If you are slowing down and tightly budgeting, you play a quick 9 holes.

  4. Older public golfers tend to watch their food spending.

Increasingly, young adults are joining the world of golf. For them, work is very demanding and their workplaces certainly aren’t comping a club membership. This is what younger golfers are looking for in a course:

  1. You like a golf course with a driving range and room for lessons with a pro.

  2. You rent a cart to save time.

  3. You love a good clubhouse with a golf simulator and a liquor license.

  4. You are driving the trend toward 12-hole courses.

This second list of younger golfers’ preferences is the key to keeping our golf program alive. The problem with the current golf course review is that we are being asked to discuss improvements to the program without being honest with ourselves about whether or not the necessary investment is even on the table. If we look at pre-pandemic times, our golf courses were operating at a loss. They do generate about $5 million in revenue annually from game and lesson fees, the pro shop, and concession operators, but this doesn’t fully cover their operating costs and doesn’t even begin to put a dent in the millions of dollars of capital repairs needed at our courses. If we want to make our golf courses more profitable and reduce the cost of operating them, we need to invest in these facilities to attract the next generation of golfers.

This photo shows the clubhouse at the Scarlett Woods public golf course in Etobicoke. It hasn't seen an upgrade in decades. The 12-hole model presents a great opportunity for our public courses. A game of twelve holes can be played in two and half hours. Courses specially designed for these short games are popping up in Mississauga, Brampton, Pickering, Ajax, London, and across the USA. Courses that convert to 12 holes find they attract more frequent golfers. Additionally, the redesign frees up new space to churn more revenue from a driving range and a golf school. Here is an interesting side benefit: 12-hole golfers find they have more time, post-game, for a clubhouse meal and a drink. Charity organizers look for 12-hole courses with event facilities to hold tournaments inside core cities. These tournaments attract more participants that can stay for the full reception and more fundraising. I’m not suggesting we switch any of our five courses to the 12-hole model just to convert the additional real estate to community gardens and splash pads. This might be an unpopular opinion to some, but I think the leftover real estate should be used to enhance the City’s golf program overall. Back before the pandemic, I visited the two municipally-owned golf courses in Burnaby, BC. One course, the Riverway, sits in the centre of the city and boasts Burnaby’s number one choice of wedding venue for multiple years running. The other is located along the city limits and boasts a massive double decker driving range to die for.

A photo of the Riverway public golf course's indoor event space in Burnaby, BC. It has been the City's most popular wedding venue year after year. These courses show us what our golf courses could be. Yes, they’d need some upfront investment, but they have the potential to more than pay for themselves once they get up and running. Investments like heated driving range facilities and first-rate event venues allow these courses to generate revenue year-round. There is one more potential use for the land that’s freed up when a course converts to 12 holes: housing. Our five public courses are located in places where we needed to dedicate large green spaces, so in some cases housing development isn’t advisable. However, if one if one or two of them did present opportunities to sever some property to develop profitable housing, that revenue could be used to build stronger programs at the remaining courses that could include all of a young golfer’s bells and whistles. Our public golf courses need a revamp. In my view, it’s not such a crazy idea to find ways for our courses to generate more revenue and try to make them pay for themselves. Toronto’s golf courses are a great public asset with a ton of untapped potential. If we broaden the conversation and make some of these bolder ideas open for discussion, we have a real chance to promote a great sport that lets players of all ages enjoy the great outdoors, right in the middle of our city.



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