WAUKESHA – This is what a grassroots movement looks like: 500 people attending a public hearing on the proposed Wanaki Golf Course closure, 5,600 signatures on an online petition to save the course, passion and righteous indignation in the air.
In the end, will it mean anything?
Why do I get the feeling, after attending the hearing Wednesday at the Waukesha County Expo Arena, that the decision to permanently shutter Wanaki already has been made?
County Executive Paul Farrow has proposed closing the popular course as part of his 2020 budget. Going to bat for him at the hearing was Dale Shaver, director of Waukesha County Parks and Land Use, whose slide show with graphs and charts showed all the reasons why the course should close: Wanaki is losing money, the number of rounds played is declining, the golf course reserve fund is depleted, etc.
Shaver made it clear that closing the course is strictly a business decision. Kudos to the county for being fiscally conservative and looking out for taxpayers … except that tax dollars aren’t used to support the three county-owned courses, and a golf course is not a convenience store or a car wash. This is a quality of life issue.
Wanaki is home to 11 high school golf teams, a robust junior program and numerous leagues. It’s home to countless memories and traditions, having been played by three generations of golfers. It’s an affordable option in a county admittedly saturated with golf courses.
Officially, wink-wink, the county does not yet have a plan for the 150-acre property after Wanaki closes, but the options are: a) it remains a golf course with a new operator; b) it becomes a non-county park; or c) it is sold for residential development.
Class, if you guessed “a” or “b” you haven’t been paying attention. Money talks, and golf walks.
Clearly, Wanaki has been running a deficit. According to Shaver, since 2001 the course has experienced net cash flow losses each year ranging between $41,000 and $243,000. The 10-year average annual loss is $143,000 and the course lost $243,382 in 2018. Farrow is painting this trend as irreversible.
But if the three public courses are operated as one fund, why is Wanaki being singled out? The other two courses – Naga-Waukee War Memorial Course and Moor Downs – should be factored in. When they are, according to one speaker at the hearing, the average annual loss is in the neighborhood of $35,000.
It’s still red ink, but it wouldn’t take much to turn it black.
The county should start by exploring the possibility of contracting with a professional management company to lease and operate the courses. There are pros and cons to having an outside agency run municipal courses, but in this case it might make fiscal sense.
No matter who runs the cash register, a rate increase should be the first order of business. The county’s assertion that Wanaki’s rates are “already in line with other local courses,” is not entirely accurate. Of the county’s 19 semi-private / public courses, Wanaki’s rates are on the low end.
The sentiment among the Wanaki faithful is that they’d gladly pay more to keep the course open.
About 40,000 rounds are played annually at Naga-Waukee, and another 34,000 are played at Wanaki. If rates increased $1 per round at Naga-Waukee – one of the most highly regarded municipal tracks in the state – and $1.50 per round at Wanaki, it would send $91,000 straight to the bottom line.
There are other ways to monetize Wanaki, though some would require an initial investment: footgolf, cross-country skiing in the winter, a liquor license, a driving range, indoor simulators.
In addition to operating losses, the county estimates that it will need to spend $645,000 over the next three to five years on maintenance costs at Wanaki. The majority of those costs are for an irrigation system, pavement improvements and $99,000 for clubhouse roof repairs. However, several of the speakers at the hearing cited estimates they had obtained that are significantly below those costs.
Shaver’s report pointed out that the ratio of nine-hole rounds to 18-hole rounds is high at Wanaki and most of those golfers hoof it rather than renting motorized carts. Well, duh. The walkable course is favored by seniors and used by juniors and high school teams, which play nine-hole rounds. It’s exercise for the old-timers and 2½ hours of smartphone-free time for the kids. Who would argue that’s a bad thing?
Perhaps the "Save Wanaki" crowd should adopt a new motto: Save a course, ride a golf car.
Mostly, though, folks were upset that Farrow’s announcement in mid-July that Wanaki would close at the end of the 2019 season – now just weeks away – gave them precious little time to come up with a plan to save the course. They are asking for a one-year reprieve.
Were the 20 supervisors at the hearing listening? I saw a few shaking their heads slightly at some of the comments made by the 45 speakers, each of whom was allotted two minutes. When one of the speakers asked how many supervisors played golf, only a few hands went up.
The proposed course closure will be voted on by the board’s Land Use, Parks and Environment Committee on Tuesday and by the Finance Committee on Wednesday. Any amendments to the 2020 budget must be drafted by Nov. 5 for Finance Committee consideration. The board will adopt the budget on Nov. 12.
Wanaki is circling the drain, but the board can do the right thing and put in the stopper. What’s the harm in giving the course one more year? If golfers who frequent and love Wanaki can’t come up with a cogent plan to address the deficit, then fine, pave paradise and put up a subdivision.