Over the last decade, many municipalities have left the golf course business; either they sold their courses outright or they turned over day-to-day operations to a management company. In a time of fiscal challenges for many municipalities, these actions seem understandable. For one thing, it is hard to sell residents on the value of an amenity that is not “essential” when cuts to services like police and fire are under consideration. Also, the general public can have a difficult time understanding why tax revenue is being used to support a game that can be seen as a pastime for the wealthy and a golf course that is perceived as an environmental threat through the use of pesticides and the overuse of water.
But on closer inspection, golf courses do provide many benefits to the community that are worthy of taxpayers’ investments. While the sport can be expensive, municipal courses offer rates that are often much lower than those of private courses, making for an affordable option for seasoned golfers as well as those just learning the game. Dinner and a movie for two people can easily cost upwards of $40, while those same two hours could be used to play nine holes of golf at the local “muni” for about the same amount of money. (I have not heard any complaints that the cinema is only for the rich.)
Welcome With A Smile
Economic issues aside, there are many ways that golf courses are advantageous to communities. First, a course can be a welcoming green space in an otherwise grey urban environment. The city of Ann Arbor’s (Mich.) Leslie Park Golf Course sits on 155 acres and is bordered by six other city-owned parks. When taken together, these areas form the largest contiguous park within the city limits at nearly 375 acres. Many studies show the health benefits people experience when exposed to a natural environment, including improved mood, decreased stress levels, and lowered blood pressure. While people may maximize this benefit by playing golf, the research shows that just being able to see the open space and a more natural environment creates a health gain.
Beyond the sport, golf courses provide many of the same recreational opportunities as mixed-use green spaces, such as parks. After playing hours, people frequently utilize the courses to walk their dogs or fly kites. In addition, in northern climates, most golf courses shut down for the winter months and can be transformed into winter play lands. Ann Arbor’s Huron Hills Golf Course is known throughout the city for having the highest concentration of sledding hills in the area. There is also a convenient parking lot for sledders to use. Portable toilets remain open and trash cans are available to make spring cleanup as easy as possible. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are also popular winter activities. As long as winter-sports enthusiasts stay off the greens and tees, there is little damage to the course in the spring. Letting the community use the grounds during a time when the course is closed helps foster a sense of ownership in the golf course beyond its use by golfers.
Calling All Critters
But it’s not only people who benefit from the presence of golf courses. Having such a large expanse of land in or near a city offers an improved environment for wildlife. Many species, such as red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds, wild turkeys, fox, and white-tailed deer are not often seen by city-dwellers because the creatures do not do well in the city, but they can and will thrive on a golf course. At both city-owned golf courses, some out-of-play areas are returned to a more natural habitat. These areas are not fertilized, mowed, or irrigated. There is prescribed burning in the spring and hand weeding during the growing season. These practices cut down on the number of invasive plants and shrubs that tend to infiltrate the areas over time, which enhance the value of the habitat for wildlife. Invasive plants do not offer the same nutritional balance that native plants do. Such activity also opens the golf course up to park users who have an interest in conservation, ecology, and volunteering.
Out-of-play areas also can form an important wildlife corridor linking two habitats separated by the golf course. Large animals usually have no problem traveling across the course from one woodland to another, but small creatures, such as butterflies, salamanders, or toads, will not venture far from cover. Having “islands” of protection across a relatively open course may make it possible for smaller species to make it from a hibernation spot to a marsh where they can reproduce.
Enhancing wildlife habitat is just one positive environmental impact of a golf course. Turfgrass is a very effective filter of rainwater, which also slows the flow of water downstream. In an urban area, parking lots, roads, and other impervious surfaces channel rain to storm sewers and drainage ditches. This water can turn what is normally a small trickle in a creek to a huge torrent whenever a large rain event takes place. This effect is magnified when multiple watersheds merge into a large river and the result is flooding. Along with this is a potential for increased erosion that will swell nutrient levels downstream. Recognizing the vital counterbalance that golf courses provide, the city and the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner completed a project in 2013 to regrade and stabilize Traver Creek, which runs through Leslie Park Golf Course. Two inline detention ponds were also enlarged to allow for increased storage during high rainfall. The rate of water will slow down in these ponds, allowing any sediment the runoff has picked up to fall out. Along with decreasing the amount of soil that is lost, these ponds also spread out the amount of water that heads downstream over a longer period of time, decreasing the potential for flooding. The $1.7-million project was funded by the city and county stormwater funds, with the state of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality offering up to 50-percent loan forgiveness, due to environmental benefits of the project. The golf course land provides an opportunity for partnerships with other organizations striving to reach sustainability goals.
Green Space Still Costs Money
Golf courses provide many benefits to both people and the environment. However, in this era of tightened budgets, bottom lines are often the primary decision drivers. In that case, it’s important to remember that courses can generate significant revenue. Often, if a municipality is looking to reduce expenses, turning a golf course into a park may be up for discussion. If this conversion happens, the possibility for revenue generation is lost or reduced. What does not go away, however, are the costs to maintain the property, such as the costs associated with mowing and trimming park land. Even if the land is turned into a nature area, periodic maintenance is required to keep up trails and tokeep the area from being overrun by invasive brush and turned into an impassable thicket. Additionally, the cost to transition a golf course into a true ”natural area,” with native grasses replacing the turf grass, is exorbitant.
Making the investment required to maintain a quality municipal golf course will not only bring in revenue but will pay countless dividends to the community and the environment for generations to come.
Scott Spooner is the Superintendent of Golf Courses for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., and he oversees Huron Hills and Leslie Park Golf Courses. He has been with the city for six years and maintains a blog at www.treetownturfguy.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at email@example.com.