Takes on Industry Happenings

Quietly, in November of 2013, the city of Hartford, Conn., posted an RFP from architects to renovate the 18-hole, city-owned Keney Park Golf Course.

At first glance, this appears to be good news, a municipality setting aside millions for a significant upgrade of a golf facility, including drainage and irrigation, and considerable work on the clubhouse.

Hartford’s hand was forced, though. The conditions at Keney, in Hartford’s north end, and its sister course in the south end, Goodwin Park Golf Course, were so deplorable that the city’s internal audit commission was asked to review their operations after numerous complaints by golfers.

The scathing report by the commission laid the blame on the company running the courses, MDM Golf Enterprises, and the city’s department of public works, which has overseen the courses since 2010, for not monitoring MDM.

In 2009, MDM, a Connecticut-based company, signed a five-year lease that in part said it would make and pay for $2.4 million in capital improvements to the courses. According to the audit, less than half of that work was done. MDM’s contract was cancelled in 2012, but Hartford let MDM finish out its contract through that season. In an editorial, the Hartford Courant called for a criminal investigation into MDM’s dealings at Keney.

According to the Courant, “The auditors report that public works officials neither inspected the sites or verified that any work performed was in accordance with the lease agreement.”

Public Works Director Kevin Burnham was asked to resign and did.

But this might not be all Burnham’s fault, as the Courant pointed out: “Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to put the parks under a traffic engineer.”

The city has since formed an 11-person committee to assess what work should be done to the courses, and how they will be run. Hartford has budgeted $5 million for course improvements this year, with $5 million more a likely possibility for next year.

What’s most mystifying to me is the fact that Hartford, like so many other municipalities, has never figured out how to run its golf courses. Hartford has been doing this for more than 100 years.

In 1906, Goodwin opened as a nine-hole layout, one of the first municipal courses in the country. Goodwin was so popular that nine more holes were added within a few years, and golfers were clamoring for another course. In 1927, Keney opened as a nine-hole layout and was 18 holes by 1930. In Goodwin’s heyday in the 1920s, about 108,000 rounds were played in one year, and more than 60,000 rounds were played at Keney.

All through the early history of both layouts, though, there were complaints about conditions.

In 1932, for instance, a meeting was convened, according to the Courant article from that time, “for the purpose of determining what can be done to improve what they (golfers) consider the wretched playing conditions at Hartford’s two municipal courses.”

Conditions were so bad, the story read, that it led to “a growing wave of disgust culminating in many of the better players going to semi-public courses for their golf.”

Now, 82 years later, Hartford is in much the same boat. Conditions are atrocious; the golfers are clamoring.

The answer for Hartford is not management companies. Maybe, just maybe, it is for other municipalities, but Hartford had problems with others before MDM.

The answer is that Hartford must learn to run its own golf courses and view them the same way basketball courts, softball fields and the cricket pitch are viewed. No one expects those facilities to make money. Golf shouldn’t lose money, but it also shouldn’t be looked upon as a conduit to support the upkeep of other fields of play the way so many towns and cities do.

Golf should be its own entity, like in Aurora, Colo. That city has six courses run by Aurora Golf, a division within the parks department. Aurora Golf’s budget is an enterprise fund, which means no general city tax dollars are received. Golf does receive some capital money funding.

Hartford, with two courses, should follow Aurora’s lead. The first priority of a management company – any management company – is to make money for the company. A municipality’s first priority should be to provide a solid and affordable golfing experience for its residents. Those are immensely different prime concerns.

Hartford, 108 years after it brought golf to its citizens, has a chance to start over … the right way .