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Officials say it’s decision time for the future of city’s municipal golf course

Golfers set up on the River Run Golf Course on a rainy Friday afternoon in Bradenton. Bradenton officials are debating the sustainability of the municipal golf course as profits continue to shrink.
Golfers set up on the River Run Golf Course on a rainy Friday afternoon in Bradenton. Bradenton officials are debating the sustainability of the municipal golf course as profits continue to shrink. zwittman@bradenton.com

Since opening at the height of golf popularity in 1987, Bradenton’s municipal golf course, River Run Golf Links, 1801 27th St. E., banked enough cash over the years to self sustain for decades. But as the game declined over the past decade, cash and time might be running out.

“The golf course was wildly successful when it first opened and stayed that way for 15 years, banking a lot of cash,” said Economic Development Director Carl Callahan. “We were a growing community at the time, but golf has changed. There are not a lot of new golfers coming in and when our reliable players go away, they aren’t being replaced.”

The Great Recession that began in 2007 also affected the game’s decline. Many of those who had the time and disposable cash to play on a daily basis cut back significantly. Many who kept that habit intact did not return to the game full time.

“Decision day is coming for what we want to do to that golf course,” Callahan said.

Part of why it’s in such good shape is because there isn’t a lot of play.

Mayor Wayne Poston

What may ultimately save the course from closing is what lies underneath the pristine fairways. Ward 1 Councilman Gene Gallo said the course served as a garbage dump since 1960 when he became a firefighter and was likely in service for two to three decades before course construction began.

Gallo said the fire department would get about one call a week to put out a fire at the dump, that back then, saw a lot of waste.

“It was actually a hidden treasure,” Gallo said. “Years ago a company called Miller Trailers had a place close by and did a lot of work for the government, and you talk about waste. There would be sheets of plywood that had a small corner cut out of it, drill bits, hammers and I found a cast iron pot that I took home, seasoned it and we used it to cook with for 20 years.”

Gallo said, at one point, one person even bought salvage rights from the city to go in and get the good stuff.

“It’s actually a beautiful course,” Gallo said. “But when we were first building it, things like bumpers would show up in the sand traps and I heard when they were digging a pond, they found a bus. They didn’t do a good job of environmentally checking things back then, but things are different now, and I don’t believe we could ever sell that property for development.”

Callahan said the city does have other options, including turning the course over to private management, which would be responsible for its own profits and losses.

It’s been well run, well managed. It’s just the nature of the game, which has become a tough industry.

Economic Development Director Carl Callahan

“They have cash to cover this year, but will run out next year, and there are some equipment and facilities out there that are coming to an end of life,” he said. “If we replace those things, then we are looking at a five- to eight-year commitment, so that is the decision the council needs to make. It’s a fantastic amenity, and it’s in the best shape it’s ever been.”

There’s a reason for that, according to Mayor Wayne Poston, who said, “Part of why it’s in such good shape is because there isn’t a lot of play.”

According to the National Golf Foundation, more golf courses are closing than opening. In 2016, 211 courses closed nationwide with just 11 new courses opening. However, golf is still a $70 billion a year industry affecting 2 million jobs. Experts say the perception that golf is dying is not true, according to Forbes, which reports that the mass closings are a “market correction” from the boom that began in the 1980s.

Callahan said he will likely recommend that the city continues to operate the course, make the investments and evaluate where the course is at financially down the road. Public Works Director Jim McLellan said the fact that it is one of the few walkable courses in the area is a selling point, and as far as development potential, “There is not a lot of usable land to sell for large scale development.”

Callahan said the course’s future just depends on the nature of golf itself.

“It’s been well run, well managed,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the game, which has become a tough industry. Currently the course is in budget, but some time over the next year, we will have to do an infusion of funds for capital issues.”

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