Failing Golf Courses Becoming Targets in Development Land Grabs
1 Mar, 2020By: Mary Helen Sprecher
We’ve already seen sports fields survive by diversifying, becoming multi-use facilities through reconstruction with synthetic turf and the addition of multiple playing lines. But golf courses aren’t so lucky. In an increasingly landlocked society, failing courses are becoming fair game for developers looking for acreage. This brings them into conflict with golf enthusiasts as well as the HOAs bordering the communities and sets up a fight for green space. Many municipal courses are prime targets.
In Myrtle Beach, the Indian Wells Garden Club located in Garden City, closed just prior to Christmas in order to make way for a little over 500 units, a combination of both single-family homes and townhouses. Residents decried the plan, citing the potential for flooding, traffic on unprepared roadways, stress on emergency personnel and loss of green space and wildlife habitat.
It’s a scenario that is playing out around the U.S. In South Windsor, Connecticut, residents packed a local council meeting to ask that the closed Willow Brook Golf Course be kept undeveloped. Willow Brook, which closed abruptly in December, is one of two neighboring golf courses in town owned by the Shepard family. Mayor Andrew Paterna said Tuesday that the family cited financial troubles as the reason for closing the 85-acre course. The owners, he noted, were losing an average of $200,000 annually over the past 10 years. (While the family says it is not currently interested in selling the land, it is seeking a solution to the financial problems the course poses).
UrbanLand examined the issue of golf courses closing and developers buying up the land. In part, they say, it’s a course correction following a boom of golf course development that proved unsustainable. That growth period, which began at the start of the 1990s, lasted more than a decade. But by the mid-2000s, more than 1,800 courses had closed nationwide (as compared to about 560 that had opened).
Because much of the golf course expansion occurred in new subdivisions on city peripheries, it created an opportunity to market more expensive homes. And that has set up some serious conflicts when developers tried to acquire the land when the golf courses started failing.
"I was sold under the pretense that I would have a golf course view,” Karl Kestner told ABC News about his home near Indian Wells Garden Club. “I paid more for my house than most people pay for their homes because I have a golf course view. It's like buying a house on the beach and then someone building a house in front of you."
Some of the biggest targets for developers appear to be municipal courses. In late 2018, Golf Advisor noted, that within six months, the cities of Houston (Glenbrook Golf Course); Aurora, Colorado, (Fitzsimons Golf Course); Johnson City, Tennessee, (Buffalo Valley Golf Course); West St. Paul, Minnesota, (Thompson Oaks Golf Course, a nine-hole executive course) and Detroit (Palmer Park Golf Course) had closed underperforming courses. Richard Singer, the director of Consulting Services for the National Golf Foundation, said two-thirds of municipal courses lose money every year.
The closing of municipal courses "is a trend. That is something we could see more of in the coming years," Singer said.
And unfortunately, since municipal facilities (munis in the parlance of golf) are where many youth introductory programs are held, the continued closing of such venues is a blow to the sport that badly needs an infusion of players in all demographics.
Golf Advisor notes, “It's one thing for a high-end private club or expensive daily fee like Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas to close. It's another issue entirely for a community course - maybe the only truly accessible course for juniors or beginners - to disappear. Think of the implications. Many municipalities are willing to operate courses at a loss to maintain green space and provide affordable golf as a community service, but too many are stuck with aging infrastructure and staggering losses to their bottom line. The red ink becomes a bullseye for city officials and non-golfing residents. At some point, this death spiral becomes a point of no return.”
UrbanLand notes that in some cases, the developer worked to appease the homeowners around the course by creating a compromise. In Prairie Village, Kansas, for example, the developer, VanTrust Real Estate recognized the potential for roadblocks when it bought the struggling 80-year-old Meadowbrook Golf and Country Club in 2010 for $4.2 million. After closing the club a few years later, VanTrust, along with Prairie Village and Johnson County officials, held numerous public meetings to solicit ideas and feedback on how the site should be reused. Eventually the effort produced a plan for a 45-acre (18.2 ha) mixed-use development surrounded by an 84-acre (34 ha) county-owned park that will feature jogging trails, a playground, open space, a community center, and other amenities.
“There were a lot of ways to develop the site, and we could have developed every square inch into something, but it wasn’t best for the community or the dirt,” said Richard Muller, an executive vice president for VanTrust.