After a series of changes over the past two years, the Butte, Mont., property now has a well-liked golf pro, remodeled clubhouse with new lockers, and $20,000 in merchandise for the pro shop on the way. So far this year, the club has sold 100 more memberships than the same time last year.
Highland View Golf Course in Butte, Mont., has undergone a slew of changes in the past two years, among them having a pro run the show, then going without one, then hiring one again, the Butte-based Montana Standard reported.
There has been one constant the past few years, however: The public nine-hole course has been bleeding money. Some say a government-owned course is an amenity meant more as a service to the public than a money-maker. But nobody finds the losses of late acceptable, the Standard reported.
The course ran a deficit of $89,444 in fiscal year 2011-2012. Revenues only offset 69% of expenses. The deficit grew to $146,158 the next year with revenues covering just 56% of costs. The loss in fiscal year 2013-14 was $165,269 with only 53% of costs recouped. The deficit ballooned to $224,594 last year with revenues covering only 42% of expenses. The county has plugged the money holes each year with tax dollars, the Standard reported.
There have been three different parks directors over the past five years and two golf pros with a year of no pro in between. But current Parks Director J.P. Gallagher believes he’s hit on a management model that will bring back many disgruntled golfers, get more youngsters to play, and start erasing the deficits, the Standard reported.
“I anticipate we can turn it around so we are close to having a break-even (figure) over a number of years,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take some time to attract people back and give them the product they expect in a golf course.”
A big move going into this season—hiring golf pro Mark Fisher from the course at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort west of Butte—is drawing kudos from lots of folks. They include Gus Janhunen, who has been golfing at Highland for 22 years and at age 82 is often the first to tee off in the morning. “He is going to be a good deal if the council goes along with what he wants to do out there,” Janhunen said. “They have to work together.”
He’s referring to Butte-Silver Bow’s 12 commissioners who weigh in often on county matters and get the final say on most major decisions. They’re buying into the recent changes and agreed to loan the course $20,000 last week so it could restock the pro shop with balls, tees, gear and clothing. The course had no pro last year, and the shop had little, the Standard reported.
Fisher wore many hats at Fairmont and will at Highland, too, including oversight of the pro shop. “Merchandise is absolutely a key to golf operations,” he told commissioners last week. Going without that, he said, “is like owning a restaurant and not having a salad bar.”
When former Parks Director E. Jay Ellington arrived in Butte in the fall of 2013, he inherited a municipal course that was losing money. Golf pro John DeWitt, through his company Impact Golf LLC, had operated the county-owned course on a contract basis since 2000. He owned the golf carts and merchandise and hired and managed course workers. Last year, Ellington decided it was best not to renew DeWitt’s contract and instead have the county manage the course through the end of 2015, the Standard reported.
Ellington blamed part of the deficits on a decline in golf’s popularity, and the county and DeWitt parted on amicable terms. Regardless, the county paid DeWitt $22,500 for the golf carts, hired a new course manager as a county employee, and took over concessions, the Standard reported.
The Highland View Golf Club, a nonprofit citizen-support group that had assisted course operations for 40 years, had a license to sell alcoholic beverages—which it stopped doing in 2007—and it ran concessions, the Standard reported.
“Somebody had given them verbal food-and-beverage rights for the golf course,” Ellington said in March 2015. “My position is that is a business function of the golf course and that needs to come back to the county.”
The changes were not intended as a long-term plan, which didn’t pay off in the short term. Memberships were down, and the course was losing even more money. Gallagher said the person chosen to manage the course last year worked hard but didn’t really know golf. She couldn’t give golf lessons or teach youngsters and didn’t know etiquette that helps keep daily play moving and on track, the Standard reported.
DeWitt said last year that when he started managing operations in 2000, there were 925 course members. It dropped by 200 in one year, he said, when Montana Power ceased to exist and many of its employees left Butte. Various stabs to boost membership and revenues significantly over the years did not pay off, and the idea of adding a driving range never materialized, the Standard reported.
Last year, since the county bought the golf carts, it made $28,246 from rentals. But memberships dropped from 432 in 2014 to 351 last year, dropping that revenue from $103,830 to $81,315. There were items in the pro shop, but not a lot, so credits to buy things there could not be used as tournament prizes, the Standard reported.
According to some members, Ellington caused dissension by introducing footgolf without giving the course regulars a heads-up. That, in turn, riled a few commissioners. John Mack, who has golfed often at Highland over the years, said the combination of Ellington and footgolf rubbed many the wrong way. There were tournaments last year, he said, but they didn’t include handicaps to make them competitive for more people, the Standard reported.
“And the absence of a pro out there was bad,” Mack said. “They kind of ran it and carried on with no pro.”
Gallagher and the Parks Board gave serious thought to leasing the course to a private company and have it run things. Gallagher sent out a request for proposal to see if someone could make the county an offer that made financial sense. But an Idaho company that had made a preliminary pitch didn’t submit a proposal, and the lone offer that came in didn’t add up, Gallagher said.
So they went to a plan B—hiring a golf pro but paying his salary, paying for other employees, keeping the golf carts, and stocking the pro shop, the Standard reported.
“That is where the money is really made in golf courses,” Gallagher said.
A lot of the dissension last year, he said, was because there wasn’t a real pro shop and no golf pro.
“We weren’t able to give lessons because we didn’t have a pro, which added to the loss of kids playing, so there was no feeder program,” he said. “We believe, just based on taking over the carts and now being able to hire a pro to offer others skills and lessons, it will generate revenue and will offset the costs of having those people (course employees) working for the county.”
From all appearances, Fisher is a hit so far. He’s a Butte native, oversaw golf operations at Fairmont for 13 years, and spent three years as the golf coach at Montana Tech. During a recent introduction to the council, he was confident, upbeat and said Highland has better days ahead. The clubhouse had been remodeled, new lockers were put in, and $20,000 in merchandise for the pro shop would soon be on the way, the Standard reported.
Fairmont spent about $45,000 a year on equipment and merchandise each year, he said, and took in about $90,000 in sales annually. He said the $20,000 for Highlands would be repaid this season. Highland View was moving to the “next step,” Fisher said, and he wants it to be a “destination course,” the Standard reported.
“When they come to Butte, they are going to say, ‘I love Highland View Golf Course,'” he said.
He said he already had a great “community following,” and Gallagher backed that up, saying 338 memberships already have been sold this early in the year—100 more than this time last year, the Standard reported.
The county is trying to reestablish the dormant liquor license so it can sell beer and wine at the course. People already bring it with them, Gallagher said, and liabilities for the county are the same whether they sell it or not, the Standard reported.
Commissioner Dennis Henderson, former chairman of the Parks Board, said that could bring in more revenue for the county too. He also said Fisher has a “lot of good ideas and has been well-received so far.”