It was a perfect storm: A cold, wet spring and hot summer kept golfers off Spokane's city courses last year. Add to that a weak economy and Americans' changing leisure interests, and it becomes undeniable: Golf is in trouble around here.
With fewer golfers, the city's four public courses need help. Enter the Spokane Club — the private, well-connected club from which Mayor David Condon has filled several key positions in his administration. In April, the city's parks department agreed to offer club members a 20 percent discount on green fees, buckets of balls, cart rentals and pre-arranged golf lessons. In exchange, the club would give the city $3,000 worth of advertising in its in-house magazine.
"My interest was trying to tap into their membership and get their membership to use Spokane golf courses," says Leroy Eadie, director of Spokane Parks and Recreation, of the pilot program with the Spokane Club.
Eadie is not sure how well it's worked, because the golf courses didn't keep track of how many Spokane Club members used the discount. Members simply had to show their club card at any city golf course after 1 pm, Sunday through Wednesday.
Chris Wright, a local attorney and member of the Spokane Park Board, is skeptical about giving a discount to members of a relatively well-heeled group.
"I think as a pilot program it needs to be revamped or abandoned, because we are not getting the value out of it that we want," he says.
Wright says he could be convinced the partnership is a good idea if similar arrangements are available to other groups, and if it ultimately boosts the courses' bottom line.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm agrees, saying that other organizations should be able to get a similar deal.
"We don't want to be exclusive in any way," she says.
The arrangement with the Spokane Club was first proposed in 2011 when Theresa Sanders, then the club's interim athletic director, contacted the city. Sanders is now the city administrator for Condon.
Eadie says the partnership is now being reworked while the golf courses are closed for the season, and the new agreement will track how many more golfers it's attracting. The only other group that has received a discount, he says, is personnel at Fairchild Air Force Base. He's open to other partnerships, but he says that the golf courses are supposed to be self-financing, and any other deal would need to be designed to get more tee times at city golf courses.
Despite the club partnership, the courses still fell $300,000 short of their $3.2 million year-end revenue goal for 2014, forcing the parks department to dip into dwindling reserve funds.
"We are all competing for a limited pool of golfers," Eadie says. That pool is getting smaller.
According to numbers from the National Golf Foundation, an estimated 500 million rounds of golf were played across the country in 2005. By 2013, that number dropped to 466.5 million. The number of golf courses in the U.S. has also been decreasing. In 2013 alone, more than 150 golf courses were closed. Economic activity associated with the sport also has dropped. A study from GOLF 20/20, an industry group, found that golf generated $68.8 billion in goods and services in 2011, down by 9.4 percent from 2005.
There were 181,323 individual rounds of golf played at Spokane's city-run golf courses in 2004. Fast-forward 10 years and that number had dropped to 131,243 rounds played at the city's golf courses, a 28 percent drop.
Although the decline was present before the Great Recession, Eadie says the country's economic situation hasn't helped.
"Golf is not a really expensive sport, but it's not an inexpensive sport," he says, noting the requisite equipment purchases and fees to get on the links have hurt many blue-collar golfers. "The other part of it is time. It's a sport that takes four to five hours to play."
The golf course, he adds, is a place where business is conducted and that space is being crowded out by technology.
Randy Cameron, Spokane Park Board president, says that despite the "misfire" with the Spokane Club partnership, he's optimistic about the future of the city's golf courses, and says that closing or selling any of them isn't on the table. He says that as the economy improves, more people will play the game and the city parks department will ramp up its advertising efforts.
Eadie also remains optimistic. He says that the city is revamping its long-neglected Indian Canyon Golf Course, which he expects will bring out golfers when it opens this spring.
"2015," he says, "will be a good year." ♦