PORTLAND — Even though the City Council may never discuss a private company’s proposal to operate the city-owned Riverside Golf Course, some golfers are trying to kill the possibility.

“This is a beautiful place, and I wouldn’t want to see it privately run and all of that money go into a private company’s pockets,” said Will Bartlett, a Portland resident who buys a $725 annual membership that allows him to play without paying daily greens fees.

Janet Daigle of the Friends of Riverside South Golf Course is firing off e-mails to city councilors, urging them to reject Harris Golf’s proposal to manage the course.

“We want to have a voice in our golf course,” said Daigle, who is afraid that fees would rise if Riverside had a for-profit operator.

Riverside – the 18-hole North Course and the nine-hole South Course – is one of a half-dozen municipal courses in the state, according to the Maine State Golf Association. Like the rest, it is managed and maintained by municipal employees.

The City Council’s Finance Committee has asked its staff to develop a business plan for Riverside, which has been run by the city since it was designed and built in the 1930s.

After the committee asked for the business plan, which isn’t expected to be ready for months, Harris Golf, a Bath-based company that owns or runs seven courses in Maine, submitted an unsolicited nine-page proposal to manage Riverside.

The company said the course has been changed too much from its original layout, with bunkers filled in and greens shrunk, and said that with a long enough lease, Harris Golf could restore it to its original design.

The proposal didn’t include financial details, although it suggested that higher fees for nonresidents would produce more revenue – enough to make changes to the course.

Riverside operates under a budget that is independent from Portland’s general fund. City figures show a bottom line that fluctuates between profits and losses most years. Riverside has lost a total of nearly $120,000 in the past decade.

Bartlett and other golfers hope that Harris Golf’s proposal will simply gather dust on a City Hall shelf.

Harris Golf “is all about the sales pitch,” he said, and wouldn’t be interested in operating Riverside if it didn’t see the opportunity to make solid profits.

Portland needs to guard against any plan that would raise prices for residents, Bartlett said. For residents without annual passes, the city charges $30 for an 18-hole round on a weekday. Nonresidents pay $4 more.

“There isn’t a rich person that’s going to play at Riverside,” Bartlett said. “This is workingman’s golf.”

Bartlett agrees with Harris Golf that the course has been altered from its original design. But he said the city hasn’t put much money into the operation, and the current greenskeeper is trying to enlarge bunkers and greens while dealing with regular flooding by the Presumpscot River, which runs along one side of the course.

Bartlett said a better approach would be to give the city employees who run the course more ability to offer deals to draw golfers. He said semi-private courses regularly offer breaks, such as lower cart rental fees or greens fees, for golfers who are willing to tee off after 3 p.m. on weekdays, but Riverside’s managers can’t.

“They can’t run a quick ad in the paper offering some deal because it has to be cleared by some board at City Hall,” he said.

Daigle said Riverside isn’t run very well – she notes shortcomings in maintenance and the lack of permanent toilets at the South Course – but it’s better to work with city workers at the course than to turn to a contractor.

She also noted that the course was built during the Depression, intended to create jobs and give city residents affordable access to a form of recreation that had been exclusively for the wealthy.

Riverside “is not where the elite are golfing. Leave the course for us,” she said.

Councilor John Anton, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he has heard from Bartlett, Daigle and others who are concerned about Riverside’s future.

At a meeting last month when the committee talked about finding a new operator for the restaurant in Riverside’s clubhouse, about 20 golfers turned out to argue against turning Riverside over to a private operator.

They were drawn to the meeting because Anton wanted potential restaurant operators to know that the city wouldn’t guarantee it would always run the course.

Cumberland has a municipal course that loses money most years, but it hasn’t seriously considered private management, said Town Manager William Shane.

Val Halla loses $40,000 to $70,000 in most years, Shane said, but any thoughts of outside management have raised worries about how much a for-profit company without an ownership stake would put into maintaining the course.

“If it’s a profit-driven company that’s going to drive this, how much is going to be invested in it and what would we get back in five or 10 years?” Shane asked. “You might be left with a glorified driving range.”

Shane noted that the same workers who mow the greens and maintain the bunkers at Val Halla drive snow plows for the town in the winter – and it’s easier to keep full-time employees than part-timers.

Also, he said, the course is popular with runners and walkers in the off-season, and cross-country skiers and sledders in the winter. In a sense, that makes the course’s operating loss the price Cumberland pays for having that open space available year-round, Shane said.

Anton wants Portland to weigh such considerations when it looks to the future of Riverside and the Portland Ice Arena, another separately budgeted city facility.

Anton said he wants to make sure the council has a consensus on how the course and the ice arena should be operated, and doesn’t continue on a path simply because that’s how the facilities have always been run.

Anton doesn’t anticipate holding that discussion until after the council approves its annual budget, which it generally does in late spring.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]