PORTLAND – The city-owned Riverside Golf Course should be operated by a private company through a lease with the city, or Portland should invest its own money to improve the course and keep it a public entity, says a consulting firm hired by the city.

Riverside, with its nine-hole South Course and 18-hole North Course, needs $1.1 million worth of improvements, says National Golf Foundation Consulting Inc. in its 112-page report, released Friday.

The firm recommends that Portland consider two options: Treat Riverside as a public amenity similar to walking trails or athletic fields that are supported by the city, or solicit a company to manage and make long-term investments in the golf course through a modest or no-cash lease with the city.

“Riverside is a unique asset to the city of Portland,” Mayor Michael Brennan said. “Some people believe having a private vendor could lead to better amenities, while others are happy with the city managing the course. This is a preliminary, first phase of discussion.”

The City Council’s Finance Committee will hold a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to hear from the consultants and review the report. No decision has been made, city officials said.

Riverside, one of six municipal golf courses in Maine, has lost almost $200,000 since 2001. Any losses must be covered by money from the city’s general fund.

In recent years, suggestions for private management of Riverside have drawn strong opposition from some golfers.

“I’m 500 percent against privatizing,” said Janet Daigle of the Friends of Riverside South Golf Course. “That will absolutely mean higher fees. It’s supposed to be a workingman’s golf course.”

Riverside faces several challenges, such as the need for investment to improve the courses and clubhouses, the report says. It also needs a marketing plan to encourage new golfers at a time when participation in the sport is down nationally, including at Riverside.

“This was a helpful document. It provides some good, core recommendations we can think about and evaluate,” said Michael Bobinsky, the city’s director of public services.

The city must weigh several issues, ranging from the financial investment needed to improve Riverside to the potential returns from a lease if a private firm manages it to the potential to raise revenue through higher fees, Bobinsky said.

Other challenges identified by the consultants include the rapidly rising cost of operating golf facilities, Maine’s short golf season and an increasingly competitive market, given the number of courses in southern Maine relative to the number of golfers.

The consultants said Riverside “is still perceived as an historic and high quality golf course, though many area golfers feel that its glory days are in the past.”

The number of rounds played at the 18-hole course totaled 23,434 in the year that ended June 30, down 14 percent from the previous year. The total rounds at both Riverside courses was 34,080, down 4.6 percent from the prior year, according to the consultant’s report.

The decline mirrors a decline in golfing nationally. The average number of rounds per 18-hole course in the United States is now 32,497, the report says, down from more than 50,000 rounds in 2000.

Riverside also is generating below-average revenues. The total for fiscal 2011-12 is projected to be $829,993, according to the city. 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 a report by Todd Gabe, an economist with the University of Maine.

 

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@mainetoday.com