The payday-to-payday status of the city of Terre Haute's finances affects several aspects of the community, including city parks.
The future of Terre Haute's two city golf courses got some public attention last month. Rea Park and Hulman Links have run a deficit for years, averaging more than a $500,000 annual revenue loss. Still, after considering turning over operation of Rea and Hulman to a private firm, the Parks and Recreation Board opted to continue city operation of the two facilities. The board imposed a 15-percent increase in playing fees for the 2018 season and a 6-percent reduction in expenses. City Council requested the cost cutting.
That change will not be a permanent remedy for the courses' situation, which is compounded by the city's lingering general-fund deficit.
Four potential private operators submitted proposals last year to run Rea and Hulman. Though none were ultimately accepted, that process could produce positive change. The plan offered by Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf had the most appeal. The business runs more than 140 courses around the nation, including the Crawfordsville Municipal Golf Course in Indiana.
All four firms' proposals called for the city to provide an annual subsidy as a guarantee to the operator. In one scenario, Casper projected it could reduce the city's subsidy by $300,000 in the final year of a five-year contract. In another non-guaranteed scenario, Casper estimated it could eliminate the subsidy completely by year five. Casper also offered to share 60 percent of any profits with the city, and 80 percent if the city reinvested its refund into course improvements.
Unfortunately, the proposals expired by the time they were publicly discussed. Pat Goodwin, a 2019 mayoral candidate, conducted a forum about the courses on Jan. 21, asking a crowd of nearly 60 people — including many golfers — to consider what the community wants in the future, in terms of its golf courses and parks overall. That question must be answered soon.
So what was promising about the private operator proposals process if it did not yield a contract with the city? All four operators emphasized that profitability for Rea Park and Hulman Links can only come through increasing play and investing in the courses, not through "cutting corners." And, city parks board president Gordon Bryan said representatives from Billy Casper Golf might be invited to address the board this spring.
Thus, city officials now understand that cutbacks and will not fix the courses' financial problems. Also, the public may — and should — get the opportunity to hear from Casper, the top private operator participating in the local search, at a park board meeting this spring. It would be wise for the board to also invite representatives from the Crawfordsville course operated by Casper.
Terre Haute needs to find a way to properly fund and invest in its general parks — gems such as Deming, Collett, Fairbanks and Dobbs — now, in the midst of the deficit crisis, and for years to come. It also must decide whether the city has the resources to continue to adequately operate the two golf courses, present and future, or whether a private management firm is necessary.
A decision on the courses should be made by the end of the 2018 golf season. The community deserves that much.