PORTLAND — The city’s municipal golf course will be scrutinized by a consultant, in what could be the first step toward having a management firm run the day-to-day operations.

The city has received bids from five consulting companies to evaluate the Riverside Municipal Golf Course and recommend potential improvements.

The prospect of an outside firm examining the 240-acre course has churned up an issue that began last year and raised fears among golfers about a new manager raising fees or buying the course.

While Riverside is not for sale, city officials acknowledge that there may be a better way to run the money-losing course.

The course, one of six municipal courses in Maine, has lost almost $200,000 since 2001.

It is projected to break even this year, said Mike Bobinsky, the city’s director of public services.

“We want to look at how well we do vis-a-vis the industry, get tips on how we can improve,” said City Councilor John Anton.

“People fear a third party managing it. That’s not the objective, but nothing is off the table.”

Anton said the city will use the plan suggested by the consulting firm to hold the golf course staff accountable and help measure Riverside against similar municipal courses.

“We will ask the consultant to weigh the pros and cons of outside management,” said Bobinsky. “This is not for the selling of the golf course.”

Portland and cities ranging from Bangor to Duluth, Minn., to Indianapolis, have looked at ways to better operate their city-owned golf courses.

There are 2,431 municipal courses nationwide, according to the National Golf Foundation. Cities develop municipal courses to provide an affordable option for a pricey sport.

Riverside golfers expressed mixed opinions Monday about who should manage the 18-hole North Course and the nine-hole South Course.

“The city should get out of the business of running a course. They don’t know the business of golf,” said Peter Beal, who has played at the North Course for five years. “Let someone else lose the money.”

Will Bartlett, who has been a member at Riverside since 1967, said, “I think it’s very well run. Nothing good can come from the idea of an outside firm running things.”

The idea of outsourcing Riverside’s management has been raised periodically over the years when money has been tight. The issue resurfaced last year when the City Council’s Finance Committee looked for a new contractor to run the restaurant at the North Course clubhouse.

The committee asked its staff to develop a business plan for Riverside, which has been owned and managed by the city since it was built in the 1930s.

At that point, Harris Golf, a Bath-based company that owns or manages seven courses in Maine, submitted an unsolicited proposal to manage Riverside. That raised concerns among golfers that an outside firm could come in and increase fees.

Harris said the course has changed too much from its original plan, with bunkers filled in and greens shrunk — an issue the current greenskeeper is trying to address.

Golfers also have complained about flooding from the Presumpscot River, which runs along one side of the course.

A year later, no major changes have been made, except for plans for a new clubhouse for the South Course.

In the evaluation, city officials want a consultant to examine the course from top to bottom — from customer service and rounds of golf played, to capital investment plans and advertising, said Bobinsky.

The review also will look at winter sports at Riverside, such as cross-country skiing, skating and snow-shoeing.

“It’s a timely opportunity to look at the management structure,” said Mayor Michael Brennan. “What’s best for the city is an open-ended question. What’s the best management structure? Does it make sense for the city to manage it, or an outside firm?”

Regardless of who runs the course, Brennan said, “you don’t want to lose money.”

Riverside’s revenues for 2012 are projected to be $829,993, said Bobinsky.

That’s below the average of $1.32 million for an 18-hole course in Maine, and below the national average of $1.46 million, according to Todd Gabe, an economist with the University of Maine.

An annual membership for the 18-hole North Course costs $735 for residents and $935 for non-residents.

Membership at the South Course costs $485 for residents and $600 for non-residents.

In comparison, the privately owned, 18-hole Sable Oaks Golf Club in South Portland charges $1,550 a year for a membership.

Five out-of-state consulting firms submitted bids to review Riverside.

Harris Golf did not submit a bid. A decision on the bids is expected in the coming weeks, Bobinsky said.

The bidders are Trademark Golf Management of Alpharetta, Ga.; National Golf Foundation Consulting Inc. of Jupiter, Fla.; Golf Convergence Inc. of Castle Rock, Colo.; Sirius Golf Advisors of Dallas and Touchstone Golf Consulting Services of Hailey, Idaho. The bids range from about $18,000, for Touchstone Golf, to about $22,440, for Golf Convergence.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]