County officials on Wednesday (Sept. 18) were touting more than $1 million in improvements made at Ben Geren Regional Park over the last decade.
Much of the improvements come in the way of new lighting at the softball fields and tennis courts. Lighting improvements at the county's eight softball fields along ran over $700,000, with an additional $200,000 spent on a remodel of fencing and restroom facilities at the field and another $146,000 spent to remodel the county's tennis facility.
But one park area where the county is cutting back, which totals more than 1,300 acres and is among the largest regional parks in the nation, is the county's golf course facility.
According to Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, the golf course is expected to bring in about $700,000 in revenue this year. That number, he said, is expected to remain the same next year.
But even with that revenue stream, the golf course operates at a loss.
"Five years ago, we were closer to operating at our cash flow," Hudson said. "The golf course is a direct reflection of the economic times and the golf market's been flat, so we actually came closer to running it with our revenues several years ago and we haven't the last few. We're going to be at least $150,000 short of our expenses over our revenues this year and a lot of that remains to be seen – how we operate the rest of the year, what we spend and what kind of play we have."
Adding to the expenses is the fact that the golf course has full-time employees drawing county benefits, said Parks Administrator Shannon Toland.
"In the pro shop, we have three full time and two seasonal," he said. "Maintenance, we have six full-time, three seasonal."
In order to stem losses, Hudson has taken steps such as not hiring the recommended number of staff to man the golf course.
"If you look at standards and so on, it will show that we need more people. But typically the the county does not staff it at what national standards are," he said. "We're trying to staff more – I hate to even bring the jail up – but we're putting more staff there. We're trying to operate this as responsibly financially as we can. And that's including reductions we've made over the last five years."
Part of that reduction is not replacing the golf course's golf cart fleet this year, as has been done in year's past. Hudson said in a typical year, a forth of the golf carts at the course – or about 25 – are replaced. But this year, the county opted to wait a year before taking such action. According to Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge, whose district includes Ben Geren Regional Park, the cost savings realized from that action saved the county about $100,000.
County officials considered a lease program, but Aldridge said it was not any more feasible than the long-established purchasing program.
"They looked at it and it didn't have any noticeable savings," he said. "The only difference was the vehicles would always be under warranty, where right now there is about a year that the golf carts are not under any such warrantee. So it could save on maintenance costs."
The county has also delayed the purchase of new equipment, such as a tractor and brush hogger, that Toland said are needed for upkeep. Not purchasing the new equipment has saved the county about $70,000, he said.
Hudson also started a volunteer program where members of the community give of their time to help maintain the grounds and act as marshals, collecting golf balls and doing other odd jobs to keep staff expenses down.
Even though the golf course is projected to post losses this year and next, Hudson said he is confident the dilemma facing the golf course will not also face the new Ben Geren Aquatics Center, which has been projected to post a loss as well.
The judge said losses projected at the aquatics center, which is expected to open Memorial Day 2015, were based on conservative estimates. The feasibility study was also based on low admittance fees and high labor costs.
"The feasibility study was done in conservative fashion and that's why it projected a loss. If you're planning on something, you're going to be very conservative in regard to what your revenues are going to be. And hopefully we are too conservative and reality is going to show it's closer to breaking even or making money," he said. "We won't know, but we're planning in our budgetary plan (a loss of) at least $30,000 a year and we also have a partner to share the loss with and that's the city of Fort Smith."
Hudson said when it comes to trying to break even or possibly turn a profit at the golf course, it is a frustration. Possibilities of attempting to lease the facility to a golf course operator have proved fruitless, he said, with the market still not rebounding enough for a golf course facility to be enticing to a private business interest.
He added adjusting green fees and other possibilities to right the golf course's revenues have been among his toughest challenges since becoming judge.
"Quite frankly, that's been an ongoing dilemma I've had since 1999," he said. "And how to deal with the costs, green fees, cart rentals, the annual memberships and the other aspects of running a golf course. It's been as challenging of a thing to deal with as I've had and that includes planning and building a courts building, working on expansion of the jail and all of the issues with it."