February 5, 2011

City weighs new management for sports sites running in red

The ice arena and Riverside golf course have lost more than $750,000 in the past 10 years.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - City officials are taking a hard look at the way they run municipal recreation and sports facilities, and may seek management companies to turn around the mostly money-losing operations.

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The Riverside Municipal Golf Course lost nearly $120,000 in the past decade, city officials say.

Press Herald file photo

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Deering High takes on the MHW Hawks in a January hockey game at the Portland Ice Arena. Making the facility available for school use cuts into the city’s bottom line.

Press Herald file photo

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As with most enterprises involving the city these days, tight budgets are driving the discussions.

The Portland Ice Arena hosts public skating, figure skating and hockey games. The Riverside Municipal Golf Course -- a nine-hole course and an 18-hole course along the Presumpscot River -- draws thousands of golfers each season.

Both operations regularly lose money.

The issue surfaced last month when the City Council's Finance Committee put out a call for a new contractor to run the restaurant in the clubhouse at Riverside.

Councilor John Anton, chairman of the committee, said he wanted to make it clear to prospective operators that the city might not manage the course in the future, so no one would be blindsided if the management changed.

Harris Golf, a Bath-based company that owns or operates seven courses in Maine, followed up this week with a nine-page proposal detailing what it would do if hired to manage the course, although the proposal doesn't include an outline of how the deal would work financially.

Company officials said that would depend largely on how long the operating lease would run, and suggested that higher fees for nonresident golfers could increase revenue.

Anton said his committee's work plan for the year includes a discussion of how the city should handle its recreational facilities. Many communities have found that management by private firms can save them money.

At last month's committee meeting, city staff was asked to come up with a business plan for the golf course. Anton said public discussion of the future of the golf course and the ice arena will happen after the council drafts the city budget for the coming fiscal year, a process that is usually completed in midspring.

He said that Portland, like many cities and towns, has found it hard to pay for upkeep of many of its facilities, and that Harris Golf, in its proposal, said Riverside has been altered so much from its original design and is in such poor condition that it is "an embarrassment."

The city has five major recreational facilities. In addition to the ice rink and the golf course, there is the Portland Expo, Hadlock Field and Fitzpatrick Stadium, three facilities that are operated by the city department that manages the rest of Portland's government buildings. None of the three is budgeted as an independent enterprise; the ice arena and the golf course are.

Anton said it's hard for city officials to justify subsidizing recreational facilities that are used by a small segment of the community when they have had to cut back on basic services to balance the budget.

"We don't stop functioning as a city if we don't have an ice arena, but we do stop functioning as a city if we don't have police," he said. "The question to me is how we balance these items."

The golf course and the ice arena operate as "enterprise funds," meaning they have separate budgets. Employees' salaries and benefits and other operating costs are expected to be covered by the revenue the facilities generate.

Occasionally, the city has budgeted for profits on the operations. But the ice arena and the golf course usually lose money. The city must cover losses from its general fund; any profits go into the fund.

In the past decade, the golf course lost nearly $120,000. The ice arena lost more than $635,000 from fiscal 2001 to 2009; figures from the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, were not immediately available.

(Continued on page 2)

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