National News

Taxpayer subsidies of Tampa golf courses are on the rise as struggles continue

Posted December 24, 2017 6:06 p.m. EST

TAMPA -- For the half of the year that Harry Nichols lives in Oldsmar, he plays 18 holes several times a month at Rocky Point Golf Course.

On a good day, Nichols said he shoots close to par on the Dana Shores course. And if he's really lucky, it'll only cost him a dollar per hole, thanks to discounts he finds on the Internet.

"That's why I play here,'' the West Virginia winter resident said before beginning a Tuesday morning round. "It's a good value."

Rocky Point, one of three courses owned by the city of Tampa, has always been relatively cheap. But since its $740,000 renovation two years ago, its improved quality has made it a bargain, Nichols and other regulars say.

For taxpayers, though, golf has become more expensive.

For the fifth straight year, Rocky Point, the city's best performing course, operated at a loss. It was $24,000 in the red in 2017, according to year-end statements maintained by the Tampa Sports Authority, the government body that runs the courses for the city.

In all, the three courses -- Rocky Point, Rogers Park in east Tampa and Babe Zaharias in Forest Hills -- lost $1.2 million last year.

TSA leaders attribute the losses to a nationwide decline in interest in the sport and the tough economics of the industry. They pointed to increased play at Rocky Point as a sign that the revamped greens are paying off. The course lost money, but it did better than the years preceding its December 2015 reopening.

"Golf as a whole is still struggling to hold onto its market share. There are more golf courses closing than opening," said Kennie Sims, vice president of golf operations for the TSA. "What we're trying to do is provide our customers with quality course conditions, affordable pricing and great service."

Nationally, course closures from the recession have mostly stabilized and participation is similar to what it has been historically, said Tom Stine, co-owner of Golf Datatech, which analyzes golf market trends.

"Golf has never been a popular sport. There's always been just a certain number of people who play golf," said Stine, who helped launch the Golf Channel and part-owns golf courses in Central Florida. "Some people want to make it out to be doom and gloom but .?.?. it's a very solid market, a very solid industry."

• • •

At its peak in 2005 -- before Tiger Woods and the stock market crashed -- there were 30 million golfers in the United States.

But participation has dropped every year since the recession, falling to 23.8 million in 2016, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Tampa has not escaped the downturn.

The number of rounds played on the city's golf courses dipped from 116,772 in 2012 to just under 90,000 this year -- a drop off of 23 percent.

When the three courses operate in the red -- every year this decade -- the city fills in the hole. Next year's budget predicts Tampa will contribute $1.5 million toward the courses, double the expense from 2011, at a time when the administration is predicting tough financial years ahead.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the courses, like any of the city's parks, provide a service and improve the quality of life. Sometimes, he said, that has a cost.

"It would be nice if they made money but they are amenities that allow people to play golf for a very, very nice price," Buckhorn said.

The courses are also a piece of the region's tourism portfolio, said Tom Scott, chairman of the TSA's golf committee.

"I am concerned" about the losses, Scott said, but said that golf is "making a healthy contribution to the local economy."

In St. Petersburg, which owns Mangrove Bay Golf Course and two nine-hole courses, taxpayers also sometimes subsidize course operations and improvements.

Mangrove Bay recently reopened the full course after a $650,000 renovation. The limited play there led to a $560,000 operating loss among St. Petersburg courses in 2017.

But as recently as 2015, operations were in the black. And next year, St. Petersburg's budget anticipates the courses will break even, including roughly $300,000 in payments to the city's general fund for lost property taxes and to reimburse for administrative staff time.

Mangrove Bay draws between 60,000 and 70,000 rounds a year on the 18-hole course there -- about twice as much as Tampa's courses.

"We've got a real good product," said Jeff Hollis, golf courses director for St. Petersburg. "With the reinvestment back into the facility, that's the goal -- to be self-sustaining."

• • •

After finishing a round at Rocky Point with three fellow tourists from Canada, Feroze Baraket mourned the loss of several expensive golf balls stolen by the course's hazards.

That aside, he ranked the course a five out of 10.

But for the price?

"Eight out of 10," Baraket said.

Even as the cost to the city has gone up, the cost for golfers to play Tampa's courses has remained relatively steady.

The average paid round of golf at one of the city's courses was $20.86 in 2017, up from $19.58 in 2012.

The cost per round to taxpayers jumped significantly more -- from $2.20 in 2012 to $7.99 during that time. And those losses factor in other revenue the Tampa Sports Authority may bring in, including memberships, the driving range, food, merchandise and equipment.

The listed rates are much higher, but there are discounts to be had for seniors, memberships, or through third-party websites. These sites act like Expedia for golf courses. Golfers can search for cheaper tee times, typically from courses looking to fill empty slots.

"If a golf course can get $15 a head for that tee time that otherwise was going to go unused that's pure profit," Stine said. "It's pure American commerce."

Nichols, the West Virginia golfer, said he played Rocky Point for $6 several times last year.

Golfers can't use those sites to book at Mangrove Bay, which also charges more. Hollis said they fear customers will be less willing to pay full price for a course they've previously played at a discount.

Fees at Tampa's three courses range from average to on the cheaper side, a point that has not gone unnoticed by TSA board members.

"There are some places in (Tampa Bay) that, frankly, I don't think are any nicer than our properties," TSA chairman John Jaeb said at a recent meeting. "And I'm surprised they're charging mid-$30 rates."

Fees have increased at Rocky Point but there are unique challenges to raising prices, Sims said, who called Tampa's market "very in-elastic."

Rogers Park is an historically black course, and previous attempts to privatize it elicited an uproar. Forest Hills residents treat Babe Zaharias like a community park; neighbors walk the course and hold meetings at the club house.

"I want them to be competitive, but I don't want them to be exclusive," Buckhorn said.

Rocky Point taps into the Westshore business community and tourists traveling through nearby Tampa International Airport, but many of its customers are still local and on a fixed income.

George Fries, a retired civil engineer from Tampa who plays Rocky Point two or three times a week, said he would play a lot less golf if the course charged $5 or $10 more. He likes that there's a reasonably priced course just 10 minutes from his house.

"If I wasn't a golfer I don't know if I would appreciate the government subsidizing golf," Fries said. "But then again, the government subsidizes playgrounds."

Contact Steve Contorno at or (813) 225-3433. Follow @scontorno.