By Greg Stanley Star Tribune
SEPTEMBER 26, 2018 — 10:04PM
Ramsey County believes that good weather, the state of the economy and well-kept courses have attracted more golfers, like Scott Crossman, out to play.
Ramsey County’s bet on the future of golf appears to be paying off, after deciding to spend $12 million to renovate the historic Keller Golf Course and its clubhouse.
Since Keller reopened in 2014, steady usage has been high. Total play at all five of Ramsey County’s publicly owned courses is up by about 20 percent from six years ago, which Parks and Recreation believes is because of a combination of a better economy, attractive facilities and good weather.
Now county parks officials are wondering how long that uptick might last and how the county’s golf courses fit in an often uncertain market. A study of the county’s courses is underway and set to be completed in October, breaking down market conditions, expected costs, trends and what to expect in coming years.
“Golf is maybe not on the uprise, but it seems like it has plateaued,” said Jon Oyanagi, Ramsey County parks director. “It seems pretty stable and the market tends to be self-correcting.”
County officials will use the report to decide whether to change rates for their courses or market them differently. It will help the County Board determine whether to invest in course improvements or to close any of them, Oyanagi said.
Ramsey County spent $12 million to renovate Keller Golf Course, above, and has seen use of its five publicly owned golf courses increase. A study of the county’s courses is underway and set to be completed in October, breaking down market conditions, expected costs, trends and what to expect in coming years.
“We want to have a plan in place if use should drop, so we’re not just knee-jerk reacting to a change in the market,” he said.
The Keller course dates back to the 1920s and has hosted several PGA events over the years since, drawing golf legends that included Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Patty Berg, who came from Minneapolis and became one of the LPGA’s legendary golfers, was the inspiration for a tour event played at Keller throughout the 1970s.
Since reopening two years ago, Keller has had a waiting list to join its men’s and women’s clubs. The number of rounds played has climbed from 26,000 in 2011 to 29,000 in 2017, records show. Even on a recent overcast weekday afternoon, more than a dozen golfers lined up for a shotgun scramble.
Publicly owned golf courses are rarely profitable, even in parts of the U.S. where they stay open year-round.
In Minnesota, just six of 35 municipal courses turned a profit in 2016, according to the latest data available from the state auditor’s office. Municipal courses returned an average loss of $97,000 in 2016.
Counting operating costs alone, Ramsey’s five courses together made just more than they spent in 2017. But that doesn’t include the roughly $800,000 a year that the county will pay in debt service until the 2030s for the Keller renovation. It also doesn’t include human resources and other administrative costs covered by the county.
Ramsey County owns two other 18-hole courses, Goodrich in Maplewood and Manitou Ridge in White Bear Lake, and two nine-hole courses. The variety of courses helps draw players with a spread of skill levels, from first-timers to scratch golfers, Oyanagi said.
The county runs its five golf courses with the same mind-set it uses for its ice arenas and network of parks, Oyanagi said: The purpose isn’t to turn a profit but to fill a demand. And the evidence shows that current demand for the county’s golf courses is strong.
Play has stayed relatively stable, within a few thousand rounds, at most of the courses since 2012. The one exception is Goodrich, which has exploded in popularity over the past five years.
More than three times as many people played at Goodrich in 2017 than in 2012. Through the end of August, the course was on track to complete its climb from the county’s least to most popular course. That may be largely because of changing demographics in the Maplewood area, Oyanagi said.
“We’re seeing that Southeast Asians are coming out more and more, and that course has been really appealing,” he said.
One of the reasons the county has stayed in the golf business is that it has decided to keep operating ice arenas, said Sara Ackmann, the county’s director of golf and arenas.
“The staff that works on the golf courses in the summer also fills the arenas in the winter,” Ackmann said. “They complement each other and we’re able to keep staff on year-round.”