Stillwater News Press

February 23, 2012

Stillwater golf course nearly free from city subsidies

By Ricky O'Bannon

STILLWATER, Okla. — Stillwater’s Lakeside Golf Course has been a popular target by critics as an example of city waste, but the latest financial numbers show the municipal course is edging quickly toward operating in the black.

When Michael Henderson was hired as the new golf pro in July 2010, the city had just subsidized the course to the tune of $271,284 in the 2010 fiscal year, which ended June 31.

Henderson told the Stillwater City Council on Monday that wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“The average municipal golf course in the state of Oklahoma loses about a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year,” he said, citing PGA statistics.

In the 2011 fiscal year, that subsidy was cut to $129,968, and Henderson said the conservative estimate for the 2012 fiscal year subsidy is $29,938. He added that he fully expects to entirely eliminate that subsidy by the 2013 fiscal year.

“I don’t think we’re going to need any money, which is a great thing for this golf course considering where it was five years ago and 10 years ago,” Henderson said.

In addition to cutting expenses, the course has seen revenue growth of 6 percent in 2011 and 2 percent in 2012 despite record summer heat.

 Henderson said the golf course eliminated four full-time positions and is using additional hourly seasonal help.

“We can scale down the golf course real quick where we do not dig ourselves into a hole like we did in previous years and we can recover, which is a normal business plan for most privately owned businesses but not municipalities,” he said.

Reducing full-time staff also means eliminating $50,000 in benefits the city has to pay, meaning the course has made almost a $300,000 turnaround in 20 months, Henderson said.

“I was probably one of the biggest opponents of the golf course when I got on (the council) because of the black hole that it was, so seeing that turn around is really, really impressive,” Mayor Nathan Bates told Henderson. “It’s just incredibly impressive, and I hope that’s a trend you will be able to continue out there.”

The golf course also has a new interactive website, pricing structure and has used nontraditional marketing on sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial and Facebook. Henderson has started a partnership with Stillwater Public Schools, and the course allows any junior high students who are academically eligible to use the course as part of a new focus on junior and youth golf, which includes a junior golf academy.

“This is not a normal deal in Oklahoma,” Henderson said. “This is something we’ve kind of started here.”

The South Central PGA — which includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and half of Kansas — chose the course to host its junior golf championship this summer, the South Central PGA Lil’ Tykes championship and Assistants Cup Matches. Earlier this month, Henderson was awarded the South Central PGA’s outstanding junior golf leader, and the course is now one of two in the state to be designated a PGA Family Course.

“The numbers are great, but I really get excited hearing about your youth activities,” Councilor Joe Weaver said. “Of course the bottom line is great, but you’re obviously building a great program out there.”