A Texas Muni Back from the Brink
In 2012, city leaders in Fort Worth, Texas, made the difficult decision to close a historic 18-hole golf course, Z. Boaz, and convert it to a community park. Fortunately for area golfers, the city had also committed to renovating its 18-hole Rockwood Park Golf Course, located just minutes from downtown in an area known as “The North Side.”
That investment is paying off – both for the municipality and golfers in the community.
The Q recently highlighted successful renovations of municipal facilities Baylands Golf Links (formerly Palo Alto Golf Course in Silicon Valley) and Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, as well as major clubhouse improvements at Bill Roberts Golf Course in Helena, Montana. There are many more recent or current examples of public agencies – sometimes with the help of private money – investing in their golf assets, including restorations of historic layouts such as George Wright and William J. Devine in Boston, and Gus Wortham and Memorial Park in Houston. (The latter is undergoing a $13.5 million renovation, privately funded by the private Astros Golf Foundation, with the goal of Memorial hosting the PGA TOUR’s Houston Open beginning in 2020).
While these courses are relatively high-profile examples of municipal renovation work, Rockwood Park fits a different mold: a lesser-known “muni” facility investing significant money to replace aging infrastructure and reverse declines in rounds-played and revenue. Across the industry, course owners have invested an estimated $3.5 billion over the past 13 years in major renovation projects tracked by the NGF (at least nine holes closed for a minimum of three months). That figure jumps significantly higher when factoring in minor restorations and course improvements.
Part of the city’s four-facility golf system that includes Meadowbrook, Pecan Valley and Sycamore Creek, Rockwood is a prime example of a golf course that was on the brink of extinction. A classic 1930s design by the “Father of Texas Golf,” John Bredemus, Rockwood had gone more than 80 years — its entire lifetime — without any substantial capital investment. Its deteriorating condition resulted in only 25,000 rounds played and less than $700,000 in total revenue in 2015. That was the course’s last full year of operations prior to a $5.1 million renovation project, one that was funded through a combination of gas well revenues and a city General Obligation Bond issue.
Almost six years after a master improvement plan was originally approved, noted Dallas area-based golf course architect John Colligan, ASGCA, began design work on Rockwood with the help of his associate, Trey Kemp. Heritage Links, a Houston-based builder of such well-known courses as Chambers Bay and Liberty National, was chosen to lead the construction, which began in November 2015.
Colligan was no stranger to successful municipal renovation work, with projects in recent years that included the city of Dallas’ Stevens Park, where annual rounds played are now about twice what they were prior to renovation, and San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park. The Rockwood renovation comprised two key elements: a total rebuilding of infrastructure — including irrigation system, drainage, cart paths, greens, tees, Better Billy bunkers, and fairways – and a partial redesign of the golf course itself. The Colligan-Kemp team relied on old photographs, including a 1941 aerial, to help capture the essence of the original design. They added their own creative redesign elements to enhance the course routing and take advantage of the topography and the dramatic views of the downtown skyline.
Strong out of the Gates
Rockwood reopened for play in June 2017, and the golfing public in and around Fort Worth has embraced the fully renovated golf course.
Rounds are up by about 56% from 2015, to more than 40,000 in fiscal year 2018, and at a higher average rate due to modest fee increases. Gross revenues increased by 142% to about $1.7 million, and a net loss (-$232,000) turned into a net profit of $463,000, a turnaround of almost $700,000 from one operating year to the next despite operating expenses rising by more than 30% to reflect the higher-quality standard.
The city has now gone “all-in” at Rockwood, with a new clubhouse and maintenance facility upgrades to be funded by a 2018 Bond Program. The forthcoming $7.7 million project will begin in late 2019, with projected opening in early 2021.
Though the renovated golf course has been open for only two years, Rockwood appears to represent a true example of a “transformative renovation” that has achieved its objectives on several levels.
Shawn Watson, Rockwood Park’s Golf Operations Superintendent and PGA Head Golf Professional, said the reworked golf course has been enjoyed by more golfers than even anticipated, taking advantage of elevation changes and the presence of the Trinity River while capturing views of the city.
“John Colligan and Trey Kemp did a remarkable job in designing a fun, fair and challenging course. One of our goals was to create a golf course that could be maintained with a fairly moderate staffing level and that goal was achieved,” added Watson. “The fact that many new faces visit our course daily is a sign of success, and when they return for the second round it validates the exceptional product we’ve created.”
Rockwood Park also has very active programming that includes a strong junior program. It is home to The First Tee of Fort Worth, one of the most active chapters in the country. The First Tee Practice Facility – completely funded by private donations — opened in 2008, while the Ben Hogan Learning Center opened in 2011 after the Ben Hogan Foundation gifted $500,000 in return for naming rights. The 9-hole Trinity course at Rockwood closed in 2007, but the land was used for the practice facility, learning center and the six-hole par-3 River’s Edge practice course, which together make an ideal venue to teach and onboard new players.
Key Decisions for City Leaders
Over the last 12 years, the city faced inflection points for several of its courses. While Z. Boaz and the Trinity 9 were casualties of failing economics, Rockwood Park received the complete renovation it required to thrive as it is today.
Fort Worth city officials recently determined a similar approach wouldn’t work for its 9-hole Sycamore Creek course, which hasn’t made a profit since 1993 as rounds declined to less than 12,500 annually. With a looming sanitary sewer line project set to affect parts of four holes (and require a rehabilitation project of at least $600,000), the city in June approved a resolution to close Sycamore Creek. Next up is determining how to tackle the improvements necessary at its 18-hole Meadowbrook course, which opened in 1939.
The City of Fort Worth’s golf division has also faced other important issues that many municipal golf systems across the U.S. grapple with at one time or another.
An example is how the city would account for its golf system, which was funded out of the general fund until it became a separate enterprise fund in 1982. (This type of conversion was a trend in municipal golf at the time, as municipal leaders were quick to embrace the positive cash flow that many golf courses were throwing off. NGF Consulting notes that changing from enterprise fund to general fund is now much more common). In 2015, facing a fund balance “hopelessly in the red,” according to long-time Assistant Director of Parks (now interim) Nancy Bunton, golf became a Special Revenue Fund. This decision – completely independent of the Rockwood renovation – was made in order to appropriately budget the subsidies (i.e., “transfers in”) that the golf system continually required.
A Model Muni
Two years into its rebirth, Rockwood Park Golf Course has positioned itself as a model representation of what a municipal golf course can provide to a community and to the game of golf.
The facility is accessible, affordable and enjoyable to players of all skill levels and backgrounds, provides ample player development and practice opportunities, and reflects proudly on a city with a rich history in golf (Fort Worth produced such golfing legends as Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan). It is also illustrative of what a thoughtful, collaborative master improvement plan can produce in terms of return-on-investment.
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