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Rough times at Amherst gold courses Town leaders hope recent improvements reverse major losses of recent years

Amherst's three taxpayer-supported golf courses have lost nearly $1 million since 2009 and revenues have steadily declined since 2008 despite major investments made in the 18-hole Audubon course two years ago.

This year, however, town leaders hope things will be different.

They say that improvements to Audubon, a new emphasis on marketing and advertising and an updated approach to course maintenance should help reverse the recent trends.

Expectations last year that the Audubon, Oakwood and Par 3 courses would stop hemorrhaging money and cut losses to a trickle were relegated to fantasy status after the town comptroller recently reported that instead of the courses losing an anticipated $34,000, they lost $282,000.

Town administrators blame the unpleasant financial picture on many factors: lackluster course maintenance and customer service, inflated revenue projections, questionable expense allocations, competition from private courses, and a long bout of rainy weather last season. Parts of the Audubon course were also under construction in 2010, inhibiting golf play.

"The experience has been bad for a number of years," said Council Members

Town will borrow money to bring sand traps up to par

Guy Marlette, chairman of the Golf Oversight Committee.

The town has made some major changes this season in maintenance staffing and scheduling, league play opportunities at Oakwood and Audubon, and new promotions that town leaders believe will be among the key differences this year in the courses' ability to eventually break even.

The town's new 30-station driving range at the Audubon course on Maple Road, for instance, is on track to become a major revenue stream this year. The Town Board also recently agreed to borrow money to end delays in bringing sand traps up to par.

Complaint calls are down this season, said Mary Diana Pouli, director of Youth and Recreation.

"Last year, over the months of May and June, I may have gotten 100 complaints, and that was just me, personally," Pouli said.

A breakdown of the numbers provided by the town comptroller and further reviewed by The News shows:

The town golf courses lost $282,408 in 2011, far less than in 2010 but more than in 2009. Instead of anticipated record revenue growth for 2011, the courses raised less revenue than they had in 2010 and exceeded expenditures by $59,254.

Collectively, golfers played 6,185 fewer rounds at the Audubon, Oakwood and Par 3 golf courses in 2011 than they did in 2010. But excluding the months of April and May, which were exceptionally rainy last year, the overall numbers were down by only 647 rounds.

Without the spring downpours, the data suggests, the Audubon and Par 3 courses would have seen overall increases in golf rounds played. But while regular public course players may be shifting loyalties among the existing town courses, the town has not attracted enough new casual users to offset long-term, overall declines.

The Audubon course saw no increase in revenue in 2011 despite the prior year's investment of $1 million for course irrigation and drainage improvements and the creation of a new driving range.

In hindsight, course administrators said, six-figure revenue projections based on these improvements were overly optimistic. However, driving-range income is showing exponential growth. The range made $18,079 in the five months it was open in 2010, and $43,297 for the six months it was open in 2011.

The driving range is on track to make even more money this season, said Eric Guzdek, assistant director of recreation.

One recent sunny day, the driving range saw steady midafternoon traffic. A few golfers were regular country club duffers who had stopped by for the first time but weren't planning on making it a habit.

But others were delighted to spend an hour on the no-frills driving range, which boasts an automatic ball dispenser and the cheapest buckets around -- $4 for a small size.

"It's very convenient," said Steve Heim, 28, who lives in Amherst and works about five minutes from the course. "At night, this place is packed."

Heim said he's also noticed improvements to the Audubon course over the past few years, though he grimaced when asked about the condition of the Par 3 course across the street. Amherst's public courses don't compete with private courses, he said.

In fact, they have difficulty competing with some public ones. Amherst's courses are low on amenities and the employees who care for them have no formal training in course maintenance.

"This serves its purpose for a mediocre golfer interested in getting together with a bunch of guys on the weekend," Heim said.

Town administrators say they don't expect the public courses to be profit makers, but they would like them to break even. To that end, the town has taken a number of steps to get the courses out of the rough.

Last year, the town automated its tee time reservation process and finally started accepting credit cards. Renewed focus was put on customer service, Pouli said. This year, she said, the Recreation Department is making a much stronger promotion push to attract casual golfers.

"We love our season-pass holders, but they are not our bread-and-butter," she said.

The town is offering Entertainment Book coupons for the Oakwood and Audubon courses and is being more aggressive with online and community newspaper advertising, as well as some limited TV spots, she said. .

To offset heavy round losses at the Oakwood course, which accounts for about 30 percent of all rounds played in town courses, the town is establishing a junior golf league there. With the closure of the private 9-hole Evergreen golf course in West Amherst, the Oakwood course has also picked up a few other leagues this year that should boost round play.

Changes at the nine-hole Oakwood course are clearly necessary. No matter how you slice the numbers, the Oakwood course lost more rounds (1,442 even after adjusting for rain) than any other town course.

Much of that had to do with the creation of a new nine-hole golf rate at the full-sized Audubon course, Pouli and Guzdek said. The new rate boosted round play at Audubon at the expense of the Oakwood course, they said.

Town personnel changes are in the works, as well, Marlette said. Until recently, course maintenance has been the combined responsibility of employees working at the Highway Department and the parks division of the Youth and Recreation Department.

Aside from the unwieldy scheduling issues associated with this setup, the relative lack of accountability associated with overall course maintenance expenses was a problem, said some course advocates.

In February, the board approved consolidation of all golf course maintenance employees under the direction of the Youth and Recreation Department to help control costs and better track expenses. Union negotiations regarding this are ongoing.

"The staff we have there now has their hearts and souls into this, but the fact of the matter is that we have a high labor cost," Marlette said. "We're at a point now where we're trying to increase the revenue without increasing the expense side of the equation."