Kent looks to end operating losses at Riverbend Golf Complex

Brandon Brown competes in a tournament last year at the city-owned Riverbend Golf Complex. City officials are looking for ways to help the course make money.  - Kent Reporter, file photo
Brandon Brown competes in a tournament last year at the city-owned Riverbend Golf Complex. City officials are looking for ways to help the course make money.
— image credit: Kent Reporter, file photo

The city-owned Riverbend Golf Complex is under "scrutiny" by the Kent City Council because of operating losses and a $2.25 million debt.

Riverbend lost $430,000 in 2011. Parks Director Jeff Watling projects losses in 2012 to be about $97,000.

"The $430,000 deficit in 2011 was unacceptable to all of us," Watling said at the council's Nov. 15 Parks and Human Services Committee meeting. "We like the projection this year. It's a good trend as we look at 2013."

But parks staff and the council are looking for ways to stop the revenue losses and repay debts as the city struggles to rebuild its financial health.

Riverbend's $2.25 million debt is to pay off an interfund loan, money that the city borrowed from its water and fleet funds to help pay off the bond for the golf complex, Watling said.

"Our goal is for an enterprise fund not to lose money and more important there is debt to pay," said Council President Dennis Higgins. "The council is looking at these funds with more scrutiny than the past. We need to look at funds so they are not in a deficit or have a plan to not be in a deficit. I need to get more confident we're not running deficits."

Watling said in years the golf course made money, payments were made to lower the interfund loan.

The council started to look more closely last spring at Riverbend after the large deficit in 2011. Watling said the course faced many challenges over the last few years including a nationwide and local trend of fewer golf rounds, an economic downturn, bad weather, levee work that caused temporary closure of holes, the failed Fire Creek restaurant and an irrigation well that failed.

Pete Petersen, superintendent of the golf complex, told the committee that expenses were reduced by more than $165,000 this year, compared to 2011. The reductions included cutting two maintenance workers and overtime to save nearly $70,000. The overtime costs are under $1,000 this year. The course also increased revenue by about $170,000 this year with increased fees and better merchandise sales at the pro shop.

"It's a difficult time in the golf industry," Petersen said in an interview after the committee meeting. "The Sumner City Council re-zoned and is trying to sell its course. The cities of Auburn and Tukwila are similar to us."

Fewer people are golfing.

"We have 55,000 rounds (of golf per year) and we used to have 72,000," said Petersen, who blamed the economy and bad weather for the decline. "We've had a 12 to 17 percent decrease over the last four or five years."

Riverbend, which opened in 1989, features an 18-hole course, a par 3 9-hole course, a driving range and a pro shop. The city took over operations of the course in 2000 from a private contractor. Watling said the golf complex also will need capital reinvestment because it's more than 20 years old.

"Our goal is to have the course break even or do better," Watling said. "There is the reality that a municipal golf course will not be a cash cow. They run on a very tight margin."

BERK Consulting of Seattle recommended last month in a study of the city's budget problems that city officials look at whether finding an operator for Riverbend might be a way to stop the revenue losses. The consultant pointed out that the city of Seattle hires a contractor to run its four golf courses.

Watling told the council committee that parks staff is open to find ways to stop the financial losses at Riverbend.

"We welcome creative ideas to get the fund on healthy footing," Watling said. "We welcome the scrutiny."

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