In 2014, golfers played 66,812 rounds at Salt Lake City's Glendale Golf Course—160 acres of fairways, sand traps and plush putting greens abutting the Jordan River that many golfers believe is just about perfect the way it is.
But the golf course, which the city built in 1973 and, on paper, is projected to rake in nearly $50,000 more than its $1 million in expenses this year, is slated for closure.
In shuttering Glendale and Wingpointe golf courses, Salt Lake City leaders hope to heal its ailing golf programs, which they say have been propelled downward by changing demographics and a nationwide trend showing waning interest in golf. These factors, a study commissioned by the city that analyzed its golf programs shows, will cause the city's golf fund to run a $1 million deficit by 2020.
Few disagree that the city must find a way to better manage its inventory of seven golf courses. But those opposed to the closure of Glendale say that city leaders—blinded by the prospect of repurposing 160 acres of rare wide-open space—have zeroed in on the wrong culprit. And, in an era where money is being used as a justification to turn off the golfing spigot at Glendale, critics point out that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to change the course into a city park—a future that would be void of the millions of dollars in greens fees that flow to Glendale.
An idea that has arisen to pay for transitioning Glendale to some sort of a mix between a park and open space is a bond measure, which, if approved by the mayor and city council, could end up on the November general election ballot. Though no fixed number has been placed on the bond, it could cost taxpayers as much as $50 million—a far cry the $150,000 that the golf courses are expected to lose each year over the next five years.
"It's just a point of saying, 'We're going to make this thing work,'" says Van Turner, a former District 2 city councilman who, motivated in part by the approaching demise of Glendale—which he believes should remain open—is once again seeking a seat on the council. "Right now we've got people saying 'We don't want it to work.'"
With the closure of Wingpointe, which the city intends to turn over to the Salt Lake City International Airport, and Glendale, the city will still face a $269,000 deficit in the golf fund in 2016. The main money-loser in the city's golf system is Rose Park, which in 2015 is expected to lose $281,000, a hole that will grow to $575,000 by 2020.
The survival of Rose Park seems to hinge, in part, on politics. James Rogers, the District 1 councilman, advocated fervently on the golf courses' behalf. As discussions were afoot on which golf courses to close, Rose Park residents turned out in droves to speak in favor of the course. The course also has been riddled by construction projects that city leaders say may have contributed to its flagging revenues.
Far from a cheerleader for the Glendale course, Kyle LaMalfa, the District 2 councilman who represents the area, says that the Rose Park course is a community asset, while the Glendale course is presently not. "Glendale Golf Course could be made into a community asset that appeals to far more residents," he says. "The open space where Glendale Golf Course resides has enormous potential for other uses that are much more compatible with our community."
Possibilities for what Glendale could be turned into abound. Some have advocated for a regional park that would include soccer fields, tennis courts and other amenities. Others want to see it turned back into the river-front property it once was, providing a sanctuary for native plants, birds and other wildlife.
The latter of these options is what Ray Wheeler, a champion of Jordan River restoration, would like to see.
Wheeler has put together a comprehensive package of plans for not only Glendale, but for Salt Lake City's share of completing and improving the Jordan River trail. In all of the scenarios—with the exception of development—Wheeler sees golf as the lowest common denominator. He'd rather see more intensive developed recreation on a portion of the Glendale property instead of golf.
And, to take it a step further, Wheeler says he'd like to see the Rose Park course shuttered. With the Jordan River Par 3 course, which closed in 2014, Rose Park and Glendale all void of golf balls, Wheeler says it would afford the city a rare opportunity to create a large network of natural restoration.
"The golf courses really are the final frontier for open spaces on the river," Wheeler says. "This would be an international showcase for the restoration of nature within the heart of a major metropolitan area."
But all of these scenarios come with a price tag. Developed recreation sites, Wheeler says, would cost around $600,000 an acre. If half of Glendale became soccer fields and playgrounds, he says it would cost in the neighborhood of $48 million.
It is this cost that bothers Jackie Biskupski, who is challenging Mayor Ralph Becker in his re-election bid. Biskupski says that Glendale could remain a golf course and still appeal to a broader swathe of the population by altering how it's used. And she says it's unfortunate that golfers have been pitted against open space advocates in this debate.
Biskupski, who along with Turner will speak at a June 13 rally in support of the Glendale course, also noted that the course remains profitable—a trend that she acknowledged the city believes will move the wrong way in coming years, but that with the switch away from using expensive culinary water for irrigation, could become much more profitable.
"Let's stop saying it's expensive to keep the golf courses and let's start saying 'Let's make sure that as we're providing this activity that people in our community enjoy that we're as fiscally conservative as we should be and that we're environmentally sensitive,'" she says, noting that golf, as recreation, is rare in that it is expected to pay for itself, while a basketball court or soccer field is not. "This mentality that somehow golf has become extremely expensive for the city is silly. There's just not a lot of logic going into the closure of Glendale considering the arguments being used to do it."
Art Raymond, a spokesman for Mayor Becker, says that 160 acres can provide a broader range of activities more appealing to a wider variety of Salt Lakers. And ultimately, he says, the taxpayers will decide if tens of millions of dollars in bonds is worth it.
"It's important to note that we know we have very avid golfers in Salt Lake City and we're going to continue to operate five golf courses," Raymond says. "The thinking behind it is, this is an overall restructuring of the golf program to ensure that the system is viable and continues to do what it's supposed to do, which is pay for itself."
But while the discussion about Glendale often winds back to money, supporters of the course note that to this day, coming off of a dry and unseasonably warm winter, Glendale is making money and is enjoyed by thousands of average-Joe golfers.
Tim Branigan, a part-time golf instructor at Glendale who says it's "the perfect public course," organized Saturday's rally because he wants to let people know that Glendale is being used by golfers and that the course is making money.
"They say golf is losing money; they say golf is waning," Branigan says. "Trends go down, and trends go up, and we're definitely in an upswing."