September 21, 2019

Should Toms River privatize Bey Lea Golf Course?

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Toms River has hired a consultant to determine what to do about Bey Lea Golf Course, which has been losing money for years.
Jean Mikle, Jean Mikle

 

TOMS RIVER – The township’s public golf course opened to great fanfare nearly 50 years ago. Built on the site of a former dairy farm, Bey Lea Golf Course was designed by renowned golf course architect Hal Purdy.

Fifty years later, Bey Lea is still lush and inviting in spring, summer and fall. But the golf course is losing money.

Toms River is likely to consider having a private company operate Bey Lea, a step that’s been taken by dozens of municipalities and counties nationwide.

“It’s losing money, and that’s not sustainable in the long term,” Toms River Council President George E. Wittmann Jr. said. “The number of rounds has gone down. It takes too long to play. People don’t really want to spend that time anymore.”

Toms River lost about $188,000 on golf course operations in 2018 and about $96,000 in 2017, according to figures provided to Wittmann by Sharon Smith, the township’s chief financial officer. Rainy weather in the second half of the year contributed to the larger loss in 2018, Bey Lea’s management said.

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Township taxpayers also subsidize about $360,000 annually in costs related to the golf course, as well as paying for the debt service related to capital projects there.

 “It’s a very expensive operation,” Wittmann said. The council will spend up to $15,000 on a consultant to study the operations at Bey Lea and Toms River-owned Winding River Ice Rink, which also has been losing money.

Wittmann said he hopes the consultant can help the township to find ways to operate the course and rink more efficiently. Privatizing the golf course and skating rink are options that will likely be considered, he said. Learn more about the township’s options in the video above.

Nationwide, the number of golfers has been falling.

In 2003, there were nearly 31 million golfers; by 2014, that number had dropped to less than 25 million, according to figures compiled by the National Golf Foundation. The number of golfers between the ages of 18 and 34 has declined by 30 percent over the past 20 years, according to the foundation, leaving course managers scrambling to attract younger players.

Throughout the U.S., more than 800 golf courses have shut down in the past 10 years. 

But there is some good news for golf: a May 2018 article on Golf.com detailed the U.S. “Golf Economy” report, created by a coalition of governing bodies and golf industry partners.

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The positive news included a 20 percent increase in participation in junior golf (golfers under 19, or those who have not finished secondary school) from 2011 to 2016; 2.5 million golfers also played for the first time in 2016, up from 1.5 million in 2011.

Hiring private firms to run courses owned by towns or counties has become commonplace.

Last month, Middlesex County accepted a bid from Billy Casper Golf (BCG) to manage its three public golf courses. In 2013, Morris County also contracted with BCG to operate its four golf courses.

Nearly a decade ago, Union County privatized its county courses, and last year, Ocean County’s Berkeley hired a private company to manage operations at township-owned Cedar Creek Golf Course. 

Berkeley Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. said the golf course had lost more than $2.4 million over the past decade before the township decided to make the move. In addition, Berkeley spent nearly $2.4 million on capital improvements at the course during that time period.

Amato said that declining rounds and revenue, coupled with rising expenses, led to the township’s decision to outsource golf course management to Atlantic Golf, which also operates Farmingdale’s Spring Meadow Golf Course.

“The township did make a concerted effort to raise revenue at the course the last three years by a combination of increasing the rate structure and an aggressive marketing strategy,” Amato said in 2018, shortly after the council voted to privatize Cedar Creek. “We did see a small increase in the rounds of golf, but not nearly enough to make an impact on the deficit.”

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Atlantic Golf did wind up hiring some of Cedar Creek’s part-time staff. All civil service employees not hired by Atlantic were offered township jobs in other departments, but at lower salaries, the mayor said. Some took those positions, but others did not, he said.

Atlantic Golf signed a five-year lease with the township, and paid Berkeley $125,000 in rent for 2018, plus 15 percent of any gross income above $600,000. 

So far, Amato said he’s happy with the arrangement. 

“I’m very pleased at the results after the first season,” Amato said. “We also have had some positive and constructive feedback on the conditions of the course in 2018. Overall, it was a very prudent decision to move forward with privatization…Now instead of costing taxpayers money, we are earning revenue.” 

Some golfers fear private management of formerly public courses, believing it inevitably will lead to fee increases. Berkeley’s contract with Atlantic specifies that fees can not be raised without the township council’s permission.

Not all public courses in the area are likely to privatize.

Neither Monmouth or Ocean counties are planning to outsource golf course management at this time, according to officials in both counties.

“We don’t see any advantage to privatizing,” said Monmouth County Parks Superintendent Mike Janoski. He said while the number of rounds played has declined “a little bit,” the county’s six golf locations have a strong group of core customers.

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Each year, more than 200,000 rounds of golf are played at county courses in Wall, Millstone, Colts Neck, Farmingdale, Manalapan and Neptune.

“Our customers come back to us year after year,” Janoski said. “We’re doing better than the national trends.” 

Ocean County Golf Superintendent Scott Binkley said the number of golf rounds played fell during the Great Recession of 2008-09 and its aftermath. But, “we’ve been doing very good at coming back from the recession,” Binkley said.

Mike Mangum, Ocean County Parks Director, said the county basically breaks even operating its two courses – Forge Pond in Brick and Atlantis in Little Egg – by constantly looking for ways to operate more cheaply.

Ocean County uses laborers from the county jail work crew to work on the courses once a week, and also saves money by using the fertilizer OceanGro, manufactured by the Ocean County Utilities Authority.

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“We’re always looking for ways to do things cheaper, more efficiently,” Mangum said.

Toms River’s Wittmann hopes the consultant will give the township ideas on how to operate Bey Lea more efficiently, so that taxpayers do not have to subsidize the course’s operations. 

“We’re just looking for the best alternative,” Wittmannn said.

Jean Mikle: 732-543-4050, @jeanmikle, jmikle@gannettnj.com 

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