The Tucson City Council's plan to close Fred Enke Golf Course in the name of fiscal responsibility demonstrates a bias and a lack of understanding of basic accounting and community investment.
What is most striking when you investigate the budgets of Tucson's recreational facilities is that golf is the only enterprise that even comes close to paying for itself. According to the 2012 budget, the City Golf Department generates nearly 90 percent of its revenues - $6-plus million - through user fees, while receiving $600,000 in subsidies from the general fund. In contrast, the Parks and Recreation Department is generating less than 15 percent of its revenues through user fees, and taking more than $40 million in subsidies from the general fund.
We choose to invest in recreation to support a higher quality of life in Tucson, and our golf courses should be part of that equation. Treating golf differently than other recreational activities suggests council members are trapped in outdated preconceptions; although golf has historically been associated with wealth and country club living, municipal golf provides an affordable alternative to private courses, making golf accessible to a broader segment of the population that would otherwise be excluded from the sport.
Enke is the only municipal golf facility on the east side and provides a valuable recreational resource in that area. Enke is also substantially more affordable than other options. Prices are currently 25 percent higher at the county-owned (and privately managed) Crooked Tree course, and typically 50 to 200 percent higher at privately owned courses. City courses are also the only facilities that offer free golf for juniors.
Of all of the city's recreational facilities, its golf courses by far have the strongest impact on tourism and are a major attraction for winter visitors. Why would the council choose to undermine affordable golf and the revenue it generates for our community? It may be the best investment we make each year.
Ironically, there is a strong possibility that closing Enke will actually result in a net loss to the city. Expenditures for irrigation go to Tucson Water, another city department; closing Enke will save City Golf $240,000, but Tucson Water will lose nearly $300,000 in revenue and simply dump more unused effluent into the Santa Cruz.
How bad is the council's judgment on this? Consider this: Enke is actually providing net profit to the city because the revenue to Tucson Water exceeds the deficit of golf operations.
Tucson Water's role highlights the unfavorable conditions the council has established that put city courses at a competitive disadvantage; 5 of the 13 privately run courses that use reclaimed water pay a substantially lower rate than Enke.
The city's Golf Operations Review Subcommittee argued against any closures, but indicated that if the council was intent on closing a course, then El Rio was the appropriate choice. El Rio is losing twice as much money as Enke, and is close to another city course - Silverbell - on the west side of town that could accommodate much of the demand in the area. In addition, El Rio can be sold to recoup losses, while there is no such option for Enke.
Clearly, if the motivation is budgetary, then closing Enke makes no sense.
It is a laudable goal to ask our municipal golf facilities to be self-sustaining, but it is also an arbitrary standard given the competing goals of fiscal responsibility and affordable recreation - especially in this difficult economy. Maintaining Enke for the future is an investment we should continue to make. When the golf industry sees a resurgence or consolidation in the future, Enke will be poised to return to profitability.
Chris Evans is an architect who grew up playing free and low-cost golf on Tucson's municipal courses.