Lawrence taxpayers have been waiting fairly patiently for the city's Eagle Bend Golf Course to live up to its promise to be self-supporting, but that patience may be wearing thin.
Consultants and golf course advocates sold this course to city commissioners in the 1990s on the basis that it would be self-supporting by 2003. Instead, it now has been learned that the course fell short of that goal and $150,000 in local sales tax money was required to keep the course in operation last year.
Last spring, city officials acknowledged that Eagle Bend wasn't meeting its financial expectations, but said they planned to cut back the budget to make up for the shortfalls. Now the city is blaming a decline in the number of rounds played, and a corresponding decline in revenue, for the inability to meet that goal.
The number of rounds played dropped from 37,328 in 2002 to 32,694 in 2003. That resulted in a decline in revenue from about $980,000 to $895,000 from 2002 to 2003. When the course opened in July 1998, it expected to play host to about 44,000 rounds a year.
City officials were quick to jump to the defense of the golf course, saying that many other recreational facilities operate at a deficit and that, given some more time, Eagle Bend will pay its way. Local residents can hardly be blamed for being skeptical of that claim.
The golf course subsidies raise a number of questions. How many Lawrence taxpayers are benefiting from the golf course? Part of the strategy for increasing revenue at Eagle Bend is to use increased advertising to draw more golfers from Topeka and Kansas City. Why should local sales taxes be used to provide recreation for residents of Topeka and Kansas City? The city's aquatic centers draw some users from out of town, but it seems a large percentage of those using the pools are Lawrence residents.
Although golf course advocates insisted that the course was needed, its inability to break even is somewhat baffling in light of the fact that it pays nothing for the water needed to irrigate the course and pays no property taxes on the land, which is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Those costs are part of doing business for privately owned golf courses in the city. The impact Eagle Bend had on those enterprises also are an indirect cost to local residents. Not only did Eagle Bend make the Orchards course west of Meadowbrook less viable, it also prompted the cancellation of plans for another Alvamar course that would have contributed to local tax coffers.
City officials say the $150,000 that went to the golf course came from sales tax revenue designated for use by the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department. It seems valid to ask whether that money might not be better used to provide neighborhood parks or recreation facilities or to purchase additional open space for future use.
The main question the city should be asking itself, however, is whether it's time to consider cutting its losses on the golf course venture. The course already is overdue on fulfilling the promise to become self-supporting. How much longer should local taxpayers be expected to wait?