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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
It's A Swing Thing: Tim Houchin tees off on hole 6 at the city-owned De Laveaga Golf Course.

Matters of Course

Economic downturn forces Santa Cruz to contemplate relinquishing the once-profitable De Laveaga Golf Course.

By Curtis Cartier

YOU COULD play dozens of public golf courses in America and be hard pressed to find one better maintained than Santa Cruz's city-owned De Laveaga Golf Course. With 6,010 yards of expertly manicured fairways and greens that you could eat eggs off of, the course is the handiwork of a top-notch, well-paid group of unionized golf course professionals. So since June 8, when city leaders announced they would look into possibly outsourcing the course's business operations to a private management company, more than a few club swingers have been calling for a mulligan.

"This is the best muni course in the nation," says Santa Cruz golfer Larry Keast after teeing off a rocket drive on hole 1. "If they privatize it they're gonna bring someone in for a lot less money that may not know a thing about golf course maintenance. What these guys do here is a science."

Science, however, is expensive. And De Laveaga has lost more than $2.5 million over the last five years. The losses aren't necessarily the fault of overpaid workers, although full-time labor accounts for the biggest figure on the course's expense sheet--$662,000 of the last fiscal year's $2.2 million in expenses. In fact, until five years ago, the golf course ran steadily in the black. It was even saving some extra profit in a rainy day fund. But in 2005, the city spent some $2.3 million on a near-complete renovation of the course, which tacked on an extra $250,000 in annual repayments and killed revenues by turning the course into a ghost town for 18 months while the repairs took place.

By 2006, De Laveaga had begun recovering. Revenues climbed back to "normal" levels of roughly $2 million per year, and by mid-2008 it looked like the course would pay itself off after all. Then, last year, thanks mostly to the recession and a nationwide slump in golf play, the course saw its out-of-county clientele drop from 60 to 40 percent and its revenues drop by roughly a half-million dollars.

Santa Cruz City Manager Dick Wilson says he thinks the course could rebound, but until the recession lifts he says he won't know for sure.

"We've always had the working assumption that the course would work financially," says Wilson. "But the industry has changed too, and the fact is that there are too many golf courses with too few golfers playing too few rounds. The market will recover somewhat, but until we know how much it will recover, I just don't know the answer to most of the questions out there."

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Director Dannette Shoemaker has six months to investigate options for outsourcing the course before the City Council takes action.

"If I had my druthers, it would definitely stay as a municipal golf course," she says. "We've just had some things come up that are outside of our control, and citywide we're in a terrible spot financially--though I'd still say there is enough concern from residents and councilmembers that the jury is still out. I'm going to do my darnedest to keep the course as it is."

Par for the Course
There's nothing new about cities outsourcing the management of golf courses. San Francisco has been considering it for 10 years, Pacific Grove came close very recently and Salinas went through with the idea two years ago. So what changes could the golfing community expect if the course is outsourced to a private firm? The answer depends on whom you ask.

"When we signed Sierra Golf Management to run Salinas Fairways, there were some concerns that the course would suffer," says Salinas Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jim Pea. "We were bringing in $1.1 million per year, but we were spending $1.8 or $1.9 [million]. In the end, they were able to do things that we weren't, and so far there have been very few complaints from the golfing community."

San Francisco's Golf Program director Sean Sweeney disagrees with Pea. And while admitting that two of the city's public courses are a drain on the budget, he says keeping them city-owned is crucial to the reputation of the local game.

"I'm convinced that bringing in a private management company will degrade the maintenance of the course until the new staff learns what they're doing," says Sweeney. "This is a very contentious issue that's been discussed every year since 1998."

Well-kept greens are considered essential for fast and accurate putts, so the much-lauded course grooming at De Laveaga is not just easy on the eyes but good for the game as well. But aside from worries over whether the grass trimming will suffer should a private company take over, there are concerns that the club's reasonable rates could be jacked up over the heads of casual players.

It currently costs $19 to walk on after 5:30pm and $71 to ride a cart in the primetime early weekend hours at De Laveaga. It's a much cheaper alternative to the renowned Pasatiempo Golf Course, which runs a steep $222 per round, plus reservation and cart fees. It's also in line with other public courses in the area, like Scotts Valley's nine-hole Valley Garden Course, which charges $18; Aptos' Seascape course, which runs $46 to $71; and Watsonville's Spring Hills Golf Course, which costs $35 to $45, depending on the day. Shoemaker says rates at the course are already slated to go up slightly come July 1, and that an outside firm could potentially raise them further. But she also says that's unlikely, as higher prices usually mean fewer golfers.

Among many De Laveaga golfers and employees, there is a hope that the course's head golf pro, Tim Loustalot, will step up and take over the course as a business venture. Many say he's the one responsible for the course's immaculate grooming and friendly atmosphere. On hole 18, a foursome of ladies finishing up their round agree that Loustalot has "done wonders" for local golf.

"Tim treats ladies who play here like royalty," says Pat Davis, a self-described loyal De Laveaga golfer of more than 10 years. "I think he, if anyone, could run the course if the city can't."

But Loustalot has been silent on the matter and did not return several phone calls seeking comment. So for now, golfers are enjoying the finely trimmed grass of Santa Cruz's favorite budget golf course in the knowledge that months from now, hitting into the rough might be a bit rougher.

"People who work this course take pride in what they do," says Keast, climbing into his golf cart and heading after his drive. "Everyone who plays here loves it, and I'd hate to see that change."

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