Ventura Council Tackles Golf Course Woes; Meeting Ends With Minor Progress and More Questions

by Kevin Harris

During Monday’s seemingly endless meeting, the Ventura City Council tried to resolve the area’s long standing issue with its debt-riddled public golf courses, on June 5, 2017. By the end of the meeting, a loosely-worded motion barely passed a Council vote, 4-3, which was still being edited after the vote was done. 

Ventura Evaluates its Golf Course Options

Formal Item #8 of the meeting was officially listed as the “Golf Fund System Evaluation” on the council agenda. The presentation was given primarily by Nancy O’Connor, Parks, Recreation & Community Partnerships Director, but also ended up relying heavily on attendee Gene Krekorian – a land use consultant specializing in golf courses, who not only turned out to be instrumental during the discussion, but he also penned a report the Council used extensively.

Gene Krekorian

The two golf courses being discussed were Olivas Links and the Buenaventura courses, both of which have been operating at significant debt, with a current debt level of $17.7 million. According to staff, some reasons for the debt include declining golf rounds being played nationally, and more golf courses in existence now that in decades past, meaning more competition. Also, Buenaventura required $500k in repairs from rain damage this year, and its banquet center requires $300k-$400k investment. 

The main part of staff’s presentation to the council was outlining their six proposed options to deal with the golf courses moving forward. These options ranged from maintaining the status quo, and continuing the $300k-$400k annual General Fund investment, to closing one course or the other, to reducing Buenaventura to 9-holes and exploring other uses for the remaining property, to closing both courses, to option #6 – treat the golf courses like any other Park & Recreation amenity. Meaning, completely redo the accounting for the golf courses, so many of their expenses will be placed on city spreadsheets, making it easier for the courses to show a profit. Staff used public swimming pools as an example. 

Following the presentation was a Q&A between the Council and staff, though Gene Krekorian fielded many of the questions. Council Member Weir asked if the existing golf course contracts (1-2 years of concessions contracts remain) could be extended. Yes. Council Member Tracy asked if raising more funds by increasing greens fees and cart fees might be helpful. Not likely to be enough, considering that greens usage is expected to remain flat in the foreseeable future, and the current rates and charges at Ventura’s golf courses are within industry norms already. 

Council Member Heitman asked about complimentary usage at the courses, and commented, in a seeming moment of clairvoyance, that if high schoolers get free usage, perhaps we can look at charging them, the same way we charge them for public pool use, “since staff wants to treat golf courses like public amenities.” Yes. High school golf teams and “employee rounds” make up the complimentary usage, though some industry trade comp happens as well.

 

Council Member Heitman

Council Member Tracy, who wins the “Don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining” award, commented that staff’s report said the golf courses were operating at a negative cash flow due to a crashing world economy. “Well, I think that’s a stretch,” he said. Tracy pointed out that it was because Ventura borrowed $16 million to upgrade two golf courses and never got a return from it. “It’s not because of the recession. It’s because we did it at the wrong time and incurred a lot of debt,” he added. 

Public comments followed the Q&A session, and the entire audience attending was there for this topic. Most speakers were local golfers or golf industry representatives. Mark Malloy, a golfer from Camarillo Springs, said his local course is going away, and that he would love to have either of Ventura’s courses, which he called “super successful.” 

Craig Kessler then spoke. Kessler is the Director of Government Affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, which is responsible for 1400 golf clubs (establishments). He pointed out that every year since WWII, there were more golf courses open than the previous year, and that trend continued up until about 2005. “The industry was long due for a correction,” he said, referring to the closing courses we see today. 

Dave Grau, from the Ventura County Taxpayers Association then took the microphone. His take, perhaps shockingly, was in support of the golf courses, but that the city should treat them like its other recreational facilities (option #6). 

Does everyone in Ventura play golf?

The meeting then went back to the council for comment – which is when things really went in all directions. Or, put another way, like a juggler falling down some stairs. It started innocently enough – with Council Member Weir raising a motion to approve staff option #6, moving golf to the General Fund and treating it like other public amenities – and directing staff to invigorate the land around the golf courses. 

Council Member Lavere seconded the motion, but said they should focus on making the Olivas course the best it can be while closing Buenaventura to bring in industrial space, or find some other use for the land. He said Ventura can not support two golf courses.

Mayor Nasarenko chimed in, saying he wants something slightly different, then proceeded to suggest nearly the identical provisions of the previous Council members. After some back and forth with Weir as they tried to sort it out, Council Member Tracy came forward, once again, as the cool head in the crowd.

He said they should focus on the major accounting shift that they all agree on first (option #6), “before looking at selling golf courses and improving areas.” He suggested that if they try doing everything at once, none of it will get done. Deputy Mayor Andrews immediately agreed with Tracy, and at that exact moment, the audience burst into applause. 

But the discussion continued. Council member Weir wanted the motion to remain completely open-ended as far as what would become of the land surrounding the golf courses, while Council Member Tracy wanted language put in that would not allow residential building happen amidst the industrial areas. He said without that add-on, he would not support the motion. In the end the motion was voted on, and passed, 4-3. The Council continued to debate and edit the motion for a short while after the vote. 

So in summary, the Council approved staff option #6, and directed staff to bring them proposals for other land uses, while remaining open to possibly selling one of the golf courses, or perhaps part of one of them.

Special Presentation – Beach Erosion

Earlier in the meeting, Brian Brennan gave a gripping presentation on local beach erosion. Brennan was representing the BEACON Agency, which he previously directed. BEACON stands for “Beach Erosions for Clean Oceans & Nourishment.”

Brian Brennan

BEACON, a joint powers agency between Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, started in 1987, and represents the coastal area from Pt. Conception down to Pt. Mugu. Brennan pointed out that more sand left those beaches in 2016 than in the 147 years prior (since they began measuring it), in large part because the area suffered effects from major storms, but with very little rain. That rain is what would have washed sand and sediments down to the beaches. 

For more information on BEACON, visit http://www.beacon.ca.gov.

The next Ventura City Council meeting will be Monday, June 5, 2017, at 6:00 pm. You can watch this and other past meetings by going to www.cityofventura.ca.gov, then clicking on the “Videos” button, and going to the “available archives” section, where the video can be watched or downloaded. 


Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 

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