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Amherst again considering privatizing its 3 golf courses

The Town of Amherst is once again considering privatizing its three public golf courses in hopes of cutting costs and stemming mounting losses.

Amherst officials on Monday agreed to seek proposals from private companies interested in operating and managing the Audubon Golf Course at 500 Maple Road, its companion Par 3 across the street at 475 Maple, and the Oakwood Golf Course at 3575 Tonawanda Creek Road.

Revenues generated by the three courses simply have not kept pace with what it costs Amherst to maintain and operate them, said Councilmember Guy R. Marlette.

“We have to get out of the golf-course maintenance business,” Marlette said. “It’s apparent we’re at a point that we need to at least explore other options.”

Amherst’s Youth & Recreation Department currently operates the golf courses, while workers from the Highway Department maintain the grounds. Amherst wants to keep its rates reasonable – $23 for a round of golf at Audubon and another $10 for a cart – but operations routinely run at a deficit.

Over the past 10 years, the town saw a net loss of more than $2 million – or an average of $202,000 a year – running its three public courses, with losses ranging from $21,500 in 2004 to as much as $375,000 in 2010, according to figures from the town’s Comptroller’s Office.

“There’s more competition from other golf courses,” said Comptroller Darlene A. Carroll, “and, in general, golf appears to be less popular with the younger generation.”

Of course, the weather also plays a role from year to year. Golfers played 26,876 rounds at Audubon in 2011, while 30,259 were played the following year in what turned out to be a nice summer and the longest golfing season on record, said Mary-Diana Pouli, executive director of the Youth & Recreation Department. Golfers at Audubon played 28,255 rounds in 2013, she said.

Amherst could hike the price to generate more revenue, but that would also force the town to consider more upgrades to justify the increase.

And in the end, it still wouldn’t generate enough new revenue to offset the additional labor costs needed to run a top-notch course, Marlette said.

Marlette sponsored the resolution at Monday’s Town Board meeting seeking requests for proposals to operate and manage the town’s three public courses. The resolution passed 4 to 1. Councilmember Mark A. Manna was the lone dissenting vote.

Manna thinks the town first needs to negotiate the matter with the highway union, which has exclusive contractual rights to maintain those public courses. He’s also worried about the town losing control of what happens at its own courses if they are privatized.

“I don’t think a private company would give the same service as the Town of Amherst has given those golfers,” Manna said after Monday’s meeting.

Amherst has considered privatizing its golf courses in the past – most recently in 2006 – but nothing came of it.

This time, Amherst would consider paying a private company a fee to manage the courses, then the town would keep the revenue. Or, a private company might pay Amherst a flat fee, along with a percentage of the revenues, to operate the town golf courses.

“The bottom line is if we think there’s a way to run the courses in a better fashion, I think we have an obligation to at least look at that,” Marlette said. “We’re not looking to have this run as a profit center, but we are looking to get it at a break-even point or a little better.”