A new financial plan turned the city of Kent-owned Riverbend Golf Complex into a moneymaker from a money pit.
The City Council started the transition in 2017 when it decided to sell the Riverbend par 3 course for $10.5 million to the Auburn-based FNW, Inc./Landmark Development Group to build nearly 500 apartments, now known as Ethos.
City staff has used that money to pay off debt at the golf complex and to improve the 18-hole course and driving range along West Meeker Street, just east of State Route 516 and the Green River. The renovated and expanded driving range provided the revenue last year to help the golf complex make money for the first time in many years.
In 2022, Riverbend had revenues of $3.34 million and expenses of $2.91 million for a profit of $429,828.
“I’m really excited about this,” said Council President Bill Boyce at a March 7 council workshop about the golf complex profits. “I remember looking at shutting down the par 3. There was a lot of anti-closing (from people), but we decided the city couldn’t continue to do business as it did.
“It turns out to be the best decision we could ever make. The golf course is just popping.”
Prior to the sale of the par 3, Riverbend had a debt of $4 million to other city funds and lost about $300,00 per year, covered by the general fund.
The closure of the par 3 in 2017 cut down on expenses and improvements to the 18-hole course and driving range brought out more golfers.
The city spent $4.6 million to renovate and expand the driving range, which now features over 50 stalls, an enlarged range field, new lighting and a remodeled pro shop. The project started in February 2020 and was completed in August 2021.
In 2022, the driving range had $859,107 in revenue, up almost 50% from 2019’s revenue of $431,966, and it exceeded city staff revenue projections by more than 20%.
“We are all pretty proud over here,” city Parks Director Julie Parascondola said in an email. “It took a team effort from the policy level to ground level. It took us thinking differently about something that may have worked 20 years ago but can’t work now, so we all had to adjust our mindset to allow the ability to test and try things out or to challenge ourselves to not simply do what we’ve always done before, because we’d obviously get the same result.
“We are seeing the positive results of those efforts and choices made. We could have accomplished this sooner if the pandemic didn’t hit, darn it, but we’re there now.”
The council voted 5-2 in 2017 to sell the par 3. Dana Ralph, now mayor, and Dennis Higgins voted against the sale. They favored keeping the area as open space.
Boyce, who also was council president in 2017, after the vote to sell the par 3 course compared it to previous controversial council votes in the early 2000s to approve the Kent Station shopping center and the ShoWare Center, each on city properties that once had ballfields.
Parascondola became the Kent parks director in late 2016, just prior to the par 3 sale. She worked the previous 19 years at Metro Parks Tacoma.
“Riverbend was not broken, it just needed refinement,” Parascondola said at the council workshop.
Parascondola said the driving range improvements have made a huge difference in turning a profit.
“The main driver was to invest and expand our driving range,” she said. “It’s brought in an additional source of revenue.”
Parascondola said 2022 was the first year of fully operating the driving range after the expansion and renovation.
“I’ll feel better when I see the number the next couple of years,” she said. “It may drop slightly because it’s not as new, but it’ll stay pretty close. We will be sustainable moving forward.”
Parascondola said attracting more golfers, strategic pricing for playing the 18-hole course as well as a lot of hard work by the golf staff were other factors in making money.
Riverbend improvements over the next year or two include a new point of sale system (launch in June 2023); rebranding of the golf course by giving it a new look with new flags, flagsticks, tee markers, tee signs, yardage posts, benches, garbage cans and divot mix containers; drainage improvements to the front of greens; irrigation control system upgrades; sprinkler head replacement; resurfacing and leveling tee boxes; and additional bunker sand.
Other upgrades include parking lot and clubhouse landscaping improvements; replace the on-course restrooms; cart path repairs; and driving range field improvements and net repairs.
In addition to making a profit, Riverbend, as required by city policy, now has a fund balance of 16% of the current year budgeted expenses or $400,000, whichever is higher. With a 2023 budget of $2.97 million, that fund will be at least $476,582 in 2023. The fund balance at the end of 2022 was at $656,000.
In addition, Riverbend has a cash reserve fund of $500,000 and a capital fund balance heading into 2023 of $1.19 million. That capital fund includes monies from the par 3 sale, federal Covid relief (American Rescue Plan Act) paid to Kent and the city’s admissions tax.