Ron Andrews’ assessment of Whispering Pines is refreshingly candid -- and perhaps surprising in these times when the tendency is to seek rather than accept responsibility. The Myrtle Beach assistant city manager said of the operating losses at the city-owned and operated golf course: “I think it’s our management. I think we haven’t managed it very well.’’
One need not be a golfer to appreciate the way Andrews claims a share of the responsibility for financial losses of $160,677 in fiscal year 2012-13 and $123,801 in 2011-12. Those bottom lines at least compare favorably with the $363,192 operating loss in 2010-11. Currently, before the spring golf season, Whispering Pines is showing a loss of $138,718.
Whispering Pines is unique among the area’s approximately 100 golf courses. The 6,730-yard course opened in 1962 on the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and was transferred to the city after the base closed in 1993. As thoroughly reported by golf writer Alan Blondin a week ago, area golf enjoyed the best of times in the 1990s and golfers played nearly 50,000 rounds a year at Whispering Pines at competitive prices.
The past three years, the course has had an average of 36,500 rounds, with attractive green fees below the area average, at $30 to $55 depending on the season.
As Andrews notes, “Right now golf is just a tough business to be in.’’ And tougher still for the city-owned course because of higher wages paid to golf course employees and a $152,000 fee paid to the city’s finance department. That’s an average amount over the past three fiscal years.
The fee is to cover accounting and administrative services such as payroll, human resources and the like. It is also a big part of the operating losses and should be carefully examined.
Whispering Pines has 10 full-time employees and golf course operators say that is a reasonable number -- as is the maintenance budget. What is unusual on the expense side of the balance sheet are wages and benefits. A private owner would have more control over wages and benefits and likely use part-time workers who are abundant in this market. Bob Swezey, a veteran course management executive, tells Blondin the payroll cost is “always going to be the challenge of operating a municipal golf course in a market run by private golf course owners.’’
The city hasn’t ignored the so-called operating losses. Many cost-cutting measures have been taken. One example: a maintenance equipment lease was extended, reducing the monthly cost by $1,800. Andrews feels there are potentially more savings. The course’s head professional has ideas to partner with The First Tee of the Grand Strand, a youth development organization.
On the revenue side, the city should take a good look at those below-market average green fees. Obviously, fees have a relationship to overall rounds played, so we surely are not suggesting golfers should pay the brunt of stemming the losses. But perhaps they could be inched up a bit to help offset expenses.
Municipal golf courses are common elsewhere in the nation. In Illinois, for example, many city recreation departments, park districts and forest preserve districts (county governments) typically operate golf courses other than those at country clubs.
It seems clear that the city of Myrtle Beach should exercise much more due diligence before deciding to convert Whispering Pines to soccer or softball fields. Rather than rushing into getting out of its golf course operation, the city needs to make a concerted effort to fix the problems. Whispering Pines has a great heritage and deserves no less.