Auditors say city-run golf course a big handicap for taxpayers

Auditors say city-run golf course a big handicap for taxpayers

The public golf course in Elizabethton can’t sustain itself financially, at least not without regular infusions of taxpayer dollars, according to a new audit from Tennessee Comptrollers.

City officials this fiscal year gave $672,204 to the Elizabethton Municipal Golf Course, City Manager Jerome Kitchens said.

In their official response, city officials told Comptrollers they will get closer to even, in part by reorganizing their current board of directors, which has seven members.

Placing even more capital improvement money into their budget, they say, would help efforts to improve the golf course.

TOO MANY GOLF BALLS: According to a new audit, Elizabethton's taxpayer-funded golf course isn't luring in enough visitors (photo courtesy of Flickr.com and https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

TOO MANY GOLF BALLS: According to a new audit, Elizabethton’s taxpayer-funded golf course isn’t luring in enough visitors (photo courtesy of Flickr.com and https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

And, in the best-case scenario, they said they hope to, by the end of the year, hit par.

Mayor Pro-Tem Bill Carter told Tennessee Watchdog city officials won’t close the golf course, nor will they privatize it.

“It’s tied in with the quality of life here. It’s sort of like recreation,” Carter said.

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Carter said city officials would try to advertise the golf course in an effort to spur more rounds.

“As soon as we can get that advertising squared away we intend to promote the course. We hope to do this as soon as possible,” Carter said.

When asked, though, Carter said the city has already done much to advertise the golf course, but he didn’t specify types of advertising.

Kitchens, meanwhile, said city officials have worked for years to make the golf course profitable.

“We’ve looked at all the other municipal golf courses in the state. They all tend to be in the same situation. They don’t produce a profit and generally run at a deficit,” Kitchens said.

“But this is a problem that is systematic within the golfing industry.”

The area surrounding Elizabethton, in east Tennessee, has competing golf courses in Johnson City, Kingsport, Jonesborough and Bristol, Kitchens said.

Jerome Kitchens (photo courtesy of the city of Elizabethton's official website)

Jerome Kitchens (photo courtesy of the city of Elizabethton’s official website)

Two more golf courses, he said, are right across the state line in North Carolina.

Kitchens said he had no information on how many people use Elizabethton’s golf course on a regular basis.

The content of the audit didn’t surprise Mark Cunningham, spokesman for the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank.

“Municipal golf courses normally lose money. It’s actually strange when they make money because it happens so rarely,” Cunningham said.

“Like everything else the government owns, if it loses money then government just puts more taxpayer dollars into it. But with this golf course it’s essentially helping only a few golfers in the area at the taxpayers’ expense. If it’s losing money then the city ought to sell it to a private investor.”

To that, Kitchens said he could offer no retort.

“I can’t respond to that because I’m the city manager, so I don’t create policy,” Kitchens said.

“But the City Council members have all kinds of discussions along those lines.”

(photo courtesy of the Elizabethton Golf Course's official website)

(photo courtesy of the Elizabethton Golf Course’s official website)

According to its website, Elizabethton’s 18-hole municipal golf course is 6,339 yards, which, the website says, isn’t long.

Six tournaments are scheduled there this year.

The course was built in the 1930s, partly with involvement from the New Deal’s federal Works Progress Administration. The golf course was deeded to the city for a sum of $1, the website says.

No definitive information was available about how many municipally owned golf courses Tennessee has, but a Google search reveals some are in Knoxville, Hohenwald, Smyrna, Nashville, Clarksville, Centerville, Chattanooga, Memphis, and Gatlinburg, among other cities.

As for state-owned golf courses, Beacon called those out in its 2016 Pork Report. The report said state officials spent $30.4 million on golf courses at Montgomery Bell State Park and Fall Creek Falls.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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