Lehigh Valley

Bethlehem Golf Club looks to exit financial sand trap

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - After years of losing money, Bethlehem officials are looking to get the city-owned and -operated Bethlehem Golf Club to play below par.

Just how to accomplish that has been a mystery, and was the reason the city's Parks and Recreation Committee devoted Tuesday night's meeting to hearing from those who know the course best - the golfers themselves.

Councilman Eric Evans offered a presentation that made it clear the club, located at 400 Illicks Mill Road, is not profitable, hasn't been profitable in nine years, and probably won't be profitable unless changes are made.

"This is one of the most highly-played courses in the county," Evans told the audience assembled at Town Hall for the meeting. 

However the club, established in 1956, has not made money since 2008 when it finished about $5,000 to the good. It has now suffered through eight bogey-laden years and 2017 likely won't change that trend either, according to Evans. 

Bethlehem Golf Club Superintendent Tom Wilchak said the club could lose between $75,000 and $100,000 this year.

Operationally the club cannot meet its overhead costs and does not have enough margin to warrant acquiring new debt, according to David Brong, the city's business administrator.

Evans presented research chronicling the financial fortunes of the club from the years of 2008 through 2016. Revenues at the courses, an 18-hole and nine-hole course, hit their zenith in 2009 when it brought in about $1.46 million in revenue.

While revenues have fluctuated in the last seven years, it has been a downward trend overall, with 2016 down 6 percent from the previous. Evans added this year will almost certainly find that same fate, with revenues of about $1.32 million expected.

There is no single bullet to explain the losses, but this year in particular has seen an inordinate amount of rain that has cut down on days to play. Another factor has been increased competition and pressure on the city to keep fees stagnant. Finally, equipment and apparel purchases are down not only in Bethlehem, but throughout the golf industry.

In fact, Bethlehem's golf club plight is hardly an anomaly. Revenue losses have also been common at city-owned courses in Allentown and Erie. Evans noted that most third-class cities, such as Easton, York, Lancaster and Scranton, no longer own a golf course. 

The club has attempted to cut expenses over the years by doing what is comes easiest - cutting employees. The club went from 12 full-time employees to its current number of eight full-time employees. Given the financial issue, the city is not able to add more employees to lighten the workload on those that remain. The city also can pay for repairs and updates to course that over a period of time must be made.

If there was good news Tuesday night it would be that while the losses are consistent they are moderate and "more of an irritant than an emergency" Evans said.

The councilman presented five options to turn the tide at the course or as he put it "the losses will continue to mount."

Those are:

  • Sell
  • Keep doing the same thing
  • Close the nine-hole course
  • Create an authority (such as the city's Parking Authority)
  • Lease/contract

Of the five options, Evans said leasing the course to an entrepreneur or private company who would also complete "all upgrades" was an "attractive option." 

This view was seconded by Councilman Adam Waldron, who said that an entrepreneur - or the city itself - should find a way to make a profit. He added that it was "not acceptable (for the club) to lose money every year."

Members of the audience who spoke during a public comment session offered an array of opinions on how to right the financial ship. Some suggested speeding up the pace of play while others said they don't play the course because it's expensive compared to other courses. 

Bruce Gardiner, a Bethlehem resident and golfer, said that he would not be opposed to raising fees and added that the city could consider turning some of the sand traps into grass to save maintenance costs. He also suggested marketing options such as twilight golf, which he maintained would combine golf with discounts on food and beer after 5 p.m.

No decisions were rendered Tuesday night and no timeline as to when one would be made was given.

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