Opinion

Let's save municipal golf in Kent | Watling

Recent letters to the editor and columns in the Kent Reporter have suggested that saving the par 3 course at Riverbend is the primary issue. Saving municipal golf in Kent is the real challenge at hand.

Riverbend Golf Complex is a wonderful asset that Kent has enjoyed for over 20 years. Consisting of an 18-hole course, a 9-hole par 3 course and a driving range, the complex is operated as an enterprise fund, meaning it is a self-supporting facility not subsidized by the city's general fund.

Because the recent recession caused reduced revenues citywide, the City Council, mayor and staff made a commitment to take a critical look at all city funds, including Riverbend, with an eye towards their financial sustainability.

Through the decades, Riverbend has not generated enough revenue to support its operating costs and capital reinvestment needs. This is a structural budget problem. A number of operating models and solutions have been attempted over the years: management by third party operators; management by city staff; and management by a hybrid of the two. Through all of these models, this structural budget problem persists. As has been documented in the Kent Reporter, this problem is threefold:

• The complex needs significant capital reinvestment to remain competitive;

• The complex needs to repay $2.5 million in operational debt;

• The complex must achieve a sustainable annual operating budget.

In early 2013, the city initiated this discussion in an effort to solve these challenges. In simple terms, the primary issue is this - How do we save municipal golf in Kent? This is the core question.

We all would like to solve the question of how to save the par 3, but I encourage us to remember this primary issue. Also, in a post-recession economic climate, the golf market has changed, making for a much more competitive marketplace.

This structural budget problem is difficult and will require difficult decisions. We held public workshops, citizens offered many ideas, and the City Council has discussed all of this in open public meetings. We shared the feedback gathered at last summer's open houses with the Parks and Human Service Committee. Additionally, Riverbend's general manager, Pete Petersen, and I had numerous meetings and discussions with members of the Save the Par 3 group, the Ladies and Men's Clubs at Riverbend, our golf customers and our junior golf partners.

Their feedback and ideas helped inform the discussions with the City Council, always keeping in mind the core goal of achieving a fiscally sustainable Riverbend. Many suggested revenue enhancements and increased marketing, all the while emphasizing the need to remain a facility that serves all ages and all abilities. These strategies must and will be part of any eventual solution.

Others suggested selling other city property to address these budget challenges. But those other city properties are controlled by other city funds and if sold, proceeds from those sales would be restricted to those other funds. This is the case with the recent example shared by Mr. Gravender, who suggests selling a parcel across the river from the par 3. The City Public Works Utility owns that property for future flood storage, and any proceeds from that sale would not help Riverbend.

Willing to listen

I have expressed my willingness to continue to meet and answer any question posed by the Save the Par 3 members. I restated my commitment recently to Mr. Sample. Any insinuation that I am not willing to answer their questions is false.

The City Council directed staff to explore the following:

• Consider Riverbend as a general fund service rather than an enterprise

• Outsource its full or partial operation

• Re-size Riverbend into an operating model we can afford.

These options were presented at the Sept. 19 Parks and Human Service Committee meeting which can be viewed at www.KentTV21.com.

Option 3 includes selling the par 3 property and creating a training center that would maintain and improve the driving range plus provide three adjacent par 3 holes. Like all other options, Option 3 has trade-offs. I can assure you it is not being "rubber stamped" by anybody.

The bottom line is we are challenged with sustainably operating Riverbend, and we are unable to afford needed capital improvements. Option 3 seeks to balance the operation of a golf complex that serves all ages and abilities at a sustainable and lower cost.

No final decision has been made, but Riverbend's future will be discussed during an always-open-to-the-public City Council Workshop at 5 p.m. March 4 at Kent City Hall. Though there are no easy answers, I am committed to help find a solution that allows Riverbend to be a financially sustainable facility that serves seniors, youth, beginners and avid golfers alike.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome at jwatling@kentwa.gov.

Jeff Watling is the director of the City's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department

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