Yahara Hills Golf Course

Yahara Hills Golf Course

The city of Madison parks department is planning to operate all four of its municipal golf courses in 2021, parks director Eric Knepp told the city’s Finance Committee Monday.

The plan comes even as the Finance Committee unanimously accepted a Golf Course Task Force report that calls for closing 18 of the 36 holes at Yahara Hills Golf Course on the city’s south side and issuing requests for proposals for a private operator to take over operations at the nine-hole Monona Golf Course on the East Side.

Despite acceptance of the report, it was stressed that no agreement on such major issues as closing golf holes or selling off land could be made without full city council approval, probably after extended consideration in 2021.

“I don’t think there’s any green lights in this at all,” Knepp told committee members before the vote.

At the same time, he gave an upbeat report on golf on municipal courses in 2020 after two decades of losses that had prompted creation of the task force.

As course operators everywhere discovered during the recent golf season, the coronavirus pandemic has been good for golf, which was widely seen as a safe and socially spaced outlet in an otherwise largely shuttered world.

“2020 will be the most successful for (Madison courses) in over 20 years,” Knepp said. With courses technically still open, the four courses – which also include the 18-hole Odana Hills Golf Course and nine-hold Glenway Golf Course – recorded 134,000 rounds played, a 35 percent increase over last year. Revenue was up 28 percent.

“We will be profitable this year for the first time in 20 years,” Knepp said, though not at a level that would permit repayment of losses that have accumulated in recent years. Losses in 2019 alone were just over a half-million dollars.

In addition, long deferred maintenance has left the courses with capital improvement needs of between $39.4 million to $58.7 million for such things as clubhouses, green and bunker improvements, irrigation and storm water capacity upgrades. The lion’s share of that, $21 million to $32 million, would be at Yahara Hills, which has suffered from serious flooding in recent years that often led to closure of some holes.

The most recent golf season was the first in many years that all 36 holes at Yahara Hills were open for virtually every day of play, Knepp said. But as for needed course improvements, he said, “40 years of not reinvesting is coming due.”

Knepp told the committee that there would be no way to solicit requests for proposals for outside groups to take over the operations at Monona by the 2021 season, guaranteeing the parks department will retain control for now. And while he said the chances of attracting outside donations to help pay for capital improvements was difficult, the possibility of a potential donor was “relatively close."

“That’s exciting news. It’s not prime time news yet,” he said, adding no further details.

In an earlier email exchange Monday, Theran Steindl, golf operations supervisor for the parks department, agreed that despite a strong 2020 season the city still faces significant questions about its golf courses.

“The urgency to find solutions to current golf capital remains as it had, regardless of 2020 revenues. We must acknowledge the uptick in golf this year has ties to a worldwide pandemic that we all hope will end soon. What golf will look like after the pandemic is ended is yet to be seen, so we must move forward with caution on this year’s revenues, as they could be a one-year anomaly,” Steindl said.

“We all hope for the best outcome for the golf department to continue the momentum from 2020.”

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