If the Chicago Park District is dead-set on creating a championship golf course on the South Side, the course had better be affordable for all Chicago golfers.
Forget about tourists, wealthy suburbanites and visitors to the future nearby Obama Presidential Center. Our city’s public parks, including the fanciest of golf courses, must put Chicagoans first.
There is no reason to feel confident, though, that the park district can make or keep such a showcase golf course affordable. The district has done no studies and conducted no surveys. It has done no homework of merit on this most important question.
Park District Supt. Mike Kelly says he expects Chicago residents will be able to play the course for less than $50, but so far that’s just talk. The best Kelly can do, by way of proof, is to point at the success of a public course in Southern California in keeping prices down. He offers not a shred of comparative analysis. As if the finances of a Midwestern golf course that will do little business in winter — lovely as the course may be — are comparable to the finances of a breathtakingly beautiful ocean-side course that does terrific business all year long. There’s your apples and oranges.
The park district and a private group called the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance want to create a PGA Tour golf course by combining the city’s existing Jackson Park and South Shore courses. The aim is to put a final “framework” (whatever exactly that is) in place by October and begin construction as early as the weather permits in the new year. But the plan is full of holes.
Pricing is a key issue but not the only one. The park district has failed to explain what exactly would happen to existing amenities in the way of the proposed fairways, such as ball fields and tennis courts. The District hasn’t said how many hundreds of mature trees might be torn down, and what the economic development would be for the surrounding community. In an editorial earlier this month, we showed how the new course, as currently planned, would wipe out a bird and butterfly conservation area.
But perhaps no issue is more central than whether ordinary Chicagoans — senior citizens playing an early-morning round, children taking their first swings, weekend duffers — will be able to play the course at an affordable price. A championship course is expensive. This project should not move forward until all kinds of questions are answered:
What exactly would be the price on weekdays for Chicago residents? Currently, the cost is $30 to play 18 holes at Jackson Park. How about weekends? What about a discount for seniors? How about for young people? And for how long would the park district be able to lock in those inaugural rates? One year? Five years?
“We are very early in the process,” Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said in an email. “I do not have specific studies to share regarding how the pricing would work.”
Early in the process? They plan to start digging in months, not years.
Time and again, supporters of the new course here point to one particular public course, in San Diego, to highlight the possibilities for Chicago. But that magnificent course, Torrey Pines, located on picturesque coastal bluffs over the Pacific Ocean, is not a good comparison.
Thanks to mild temperatures, Torrey Pines is open 360 days a year. Chicago’s course will be in hibernation, collecting little to no revenue, in winter.
Moreover, only 30 percent of reservations at Torrey Pines can be pre-booked by non-residents, Mark Marney, deputy director of the golf division of San Diego Park and Recreation, tells us. The other tee times stay open for San Diego’s 1.4 million residents. Will Chicago do the same for its 2.7 million residents? It should. But, again, our park district has not provided specifics.
To play the vaunted South course at Torrey Pines, where golfer Tiger Woods dramatically won the U.S. Open in 2008, San Diego residents pay $63 during the week and $78 on weekends. Rates are approved by the San Diego City Council, which reviews the golf business plan.
San Diego pulls in enough revenue from greens fees to help cover operating expenses of five public courses. There are no taxpayer subsidies, Marney says. Each year, the golf division pays the city a fee for using its land. This year it will be about $2.5 million.
There is wiggle room in the business plan to increase rates minimally each year to cover shortfalls or rising expenses, but rates have held steady for residents the last five years.
We looked, as well, at four other public courses that supporters and experts suggested as possible comps. In every case, greens fees are considerably higher, especially on weekends, than the $50 max being floated for Chicago.
So how will Chicago pull this off?
“We want the park district to maintain their rates near current levels,” Brian Hogan, director of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, said in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board last month. His group is raising millions in private, charitable donations to fund construction of the new course.
Hogan said $50 would be too much to charge in Chicago. “Our donors are not going to contribute money if [people] are priced out.”
All the more reason for the park district to figure out pricing — now. Quit asking Chicago to tee off on this dream course until you do your homework and fess up to the hazards.
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