By Lorraine Gabbert
After draining city coffers for decades, San Jose’s three city-owned golf courses are back in full swing—bringing in more green for City Hall.
The sport has experienced a resurgence during the pandemic as people seek recreation in the great outdoors.
From May 2020 to April 2021, San Jose Municipal Golf Course saw a 44% increase in players compared to the same time period in 2018-2019. Los Lagos Golf Course saw a 53% increase in players, while East San Jose Rancho Del Pueblo Golf Course experienced an increase of 110%.
Adam Hernandez, who plays golf daily at Rancho del Pueblo, said during the pandemic it was one of the few things the public could still do.
“It gives people a chance to socialize, enjoy the sunshine and be part of the community,” he said.
The increase in golfers at city-owned courses improved their bottom lines, to the relief of councilmembers who fought to keep them open in the past.
Due to the expense of the courses, the city considered turning them into soccer fields, parks or affordable housing sites. The city owed debt for the land, but wasn’t allowed to turn a profit since part of the financing came from federal bonds.
In 2011, former Mayor Chuck Reed planned to sell Rancho del Pueblo to a real estate developer. The course operated at a loss of almost $280,000 the year before. At the time, Los Lagos lost $1.5 million a year from debt alone.
A 2015 audit showed the city paid more than $2 million a year to keep the three public courses open. In 2014-2015, Los Lagos and Rancho del Pueblo accrued combined losses of $600,000. The city also had to pay $2.2 million in debt. In 2016-2017, the city paid $621,756 just to subsidize Los Lagos.
At the time, former Councilmember Johnny Khamis suggested selling off at least Los Lagos. But in 2018, 3,700 residents submitted a petition to the City Council demanding it remain open.
Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco is against closing Rancho del Pueblo, and said for densely populated East San Jose, it represents one of the only tiny patches of green left in District 5.
“We’re built out, there’s nothing left of open space or non-paved over areas except for the hills,” she said.
Carrasco said with the sale of Hayes Mansion for $27.8 million, the golf course’s service debt is paid off and she expects it to show a profit by the end of the year. The pandemic has made Rancho del Pueblo even more essential, she said.
“You need open space for people’s health and well-being,” Carrasco said, “especially for poor communities. People are starved for recreational opportunities and Rancho serves this purpose.”
Khamis said he wasn’t trying to take away public space, but golf courses are expensive to maintain.
“We were losing millions every year,” Khamis said. “Golf was waning, and we weren’t even close to breaking even, except for Muni. Before I left office.”
Jim Shannon, budget director for the city manager’s office, said by eliminating their outstanding debt in the 2020-2021 budget, the golf courses can be more profitable.
“For 2020-2021, the budget was established at a time of great uncertainty for sports and recreation facilities and assumed that a net subsidy of $660,000 was needed for the city’s three municipal golf courses,” Shannon said. “As of this time, staff estimates the three courses will generate more than $1 million in net income for the city in 2020-2021.”
Compare that to the city’s proposed operating budget for 2021-2022, which assumes a net subsidy of $100,000 for the three courses combined.
Shannon also sees value beyond the bottom line.
“In addition to being an accessible recreational activity for all ages, golf courses are open spaces with a valuable environmental impact for flood control along our creeks, wildlife protection and preservation for park use in a growing urban city,” he said.
The golf courses also provide space for community events and programs. Rancho del Pueblo’s junior tournament benefits the Second Harvest Food Bank and its life skills program assists underserved families in East San Jose.
Looking ahead, Shannon said staff and golf course operators anticipate the growth in the sport to remain, but not at the same level as the past 12 months.
Nationally, the number of golfers in 2020 set records. According to the National Golf Federation (NGF), 24.8 million Americans golfed last year; an addition of 500,000 people. And 6.2 million of these were newcomers to the game.
Last year saw the greatest increase in beginner golfers, youth and women, according to NGF. In 2020, millennials increased the number of rounds they played by 13% from 2019, and those under age 40 made up 44% of players.
Bellarmine College Preparatory golf coach Garrison Rajkovich said the municipal golf courses are something San Jose should be proud of.
“It’s a really friendly place for beginners new to the sport to get their feet wet,” he said.
Manuela Barros, adult golf instructor at Los Lagos, said the course is accessible and inexpensive.
“People are very excited to be playing golf again and being outside,” she said. “For mental health, it’s also important. I think having a public course is very important for the community.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at email@example.com.
This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.