ELIZABETH---With its budget hearings complete, the Union County Freeholders Fiscal Committee has begun to make final recommendations on the County's 2009 budget. First on the agenda is the Administration’s plan to establish its County’s Golf Courses as a profit center. Key components of the plan include the closure of Oak Ridge golf course in Clark, construction of a driving range at the Galloping Hill golf course in Union and the issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) to establish a public-private partnership by inviting nationally known firms to partner with the County on the operations of its two remaining courses at Ashbrook In Scotch Plains and Galloping Hill.
With the golf season beginning at the end of this month, the Fiscal Committee in consultation with the entire Freeholder Board agreed to the closure of Oak Ridge and to send out RFP as soon as possible.
The closure of the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark will result in an annualized savings of $740,000 a year. The 67-acre golf course could be converted into a multi-use County Park, and its historic clubhouse would be restored and preserved.
“There is support among the Freeholder Board as a whole for the County to solicit proposals on a public-private partnership for two courses so that we may maximize our revenues” said Freeholder Angel G. Estrada, the chairman of the Fiscal Committee. “Unfortunately, the end result is the closure of Oak Ridge.”
Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski noted, however, that where “one door closes, another may open” as the County considers the reuse of the property.
“We look forward to hearing from the community on what recreational use the facility can serve,” Kowalski said.
The plan to establish the County golf courses as a profit center is one part of a multi-phase action plan, announced by County Manager George W. Devanney to close a $24 million budget gap. Other measures include a reduction of the workforce through traditional and non-traditional methods; a series of employee givebacks through negotiated contracts; and the maximization of existing revenues and the creation of new revenue sources, such as the leasing of beds at the Juvenile Detention Center and the creation of a County towing facility.
The decision to close Oak Ridge followed the release of somber fiscal statistics regarding the 72-year-old course: Oak Ridge would require a minimum of $5-7 million to rebuild its antiquated club house which is dilapidated and an ailing golf course, which suffers from structural flooding. Oak Ridge also sustained the worst operating loss among all County courses this past year, at a total of $410,000 with a loss of 1,789 rounds. Consequently County Golf Divison statistics also showed that the County’s Ash Brook golf course in nearby Scotch Plains experienced an increase of 1,784 rounds.
The New Jersey State Golf Course Owners Association has shown support for the closure of Oak Ridge citing that the supply of golf courses across the region and the Country far outweighs the demand.
In a letter to the County, the Association’s Director writes “today the Union County golf courses compete against approximately one dozen more golf courses in northern and central NJ than existed only 10 years ago. The number of golfers has not increased and remains at only 10% of the general population.”
Furthermore, the letter states “for the health of our sport and industry it is my hope that the demand / supply imbalance will be corrected in the very near future. Courses will then be able to operate at utilization levels that will allow them to reinvest funds into their facilities and better focus on growing the game of golf.”
According to statistics compiled from golf industry sources including the National Golf Foundation, golf rounds nationwide have been on a three-year decline between 2006-2008, while closings have continued to outpace course openings during the same period. The golfing participation rate has dropped from a high of about 11 percent in 2002, to under 9 percent in 2007 and continues to go lower.
County Manager Devanney, in his executive budget message to the Freeholder Board, noted the County would realize a better return on its money by focusing its existing manpower and resources on the County’s remaining golf courses--Ash Brook in Scotch Plains, and Galloping Hill in Union. Both courses currently require the modernization of their club house facilities in order to create new revenue sources that would help restore the golf division to profitability.
“Given the economic environment, it is absolutely essential we maximize all of the County’s revenues sources,” Devanney said. “We are therefore exploring additional private partnerships at both Galloping Hill and Ash Brook.
Under the public-private partnership, the golf management company would be responsible for managing the construction, development of new revenue programs, and day to day operations for each club house with the objective of attaining profitability. The County will soon structure a request for proposal with specific requirements for meeting financial goals.
In completing the overhaul of its golf courses, the County has begun the construction of a driving range and learning center at Galloping Hill. Market studies have shown there is a lack of driving range facilities in the region. Such an attraction will bring a wider audience to golf at Galloping Hill, which also enjoys an outstanding location near regional transportation, helping to grow the game. The County anticipates opening the facility by the end of the summer which studies show will generate $600,000 in annual revenues.