Don’t rush to bulldoze Bennett Valley Golf Course

A lot of people are eyeing 175 acres on Santa Rosa’s southeast side. Why it’d be just the site for affordable housing, for ball fields, for economic development. The problem? The city’s Bennett Valley Golf Course is already there. Before rushing to bulldoze, the City Council wisely tapped the breaks and is gathering more information.

The 18-hole course isn’t doing the sort of brisk business it once did. Chalk it up to slipping interest in golf nationwide. Other local golf courses are struggling or outright closing.

Bennett Valley, at least, is still in the black. The number of rounds played on the course annually has declined over the past couple of decades. But play rebounded somewhat last year as people realized that golf is a great opportunity for social distancing outdoors. Whether that will persist post-pandemic remains to be seen.

Even with the number of rounds down, the course has remained profitable. That’s unusual among public recreation facilities, which typically rely on taxpayer funding. There’s no fee to use local parks, and only modest fees associated with sports fields used by youth and adult recreation leagues. No trial balloon ever exploded faster than the suggestion a few years ago to put parking meters at Howarth Park.

But golfers pay their greens fees, which increased to $43 per round in 2017. That’s not to say the city has been absent. Santa Rosa took on debt to pay for a new clubhouse with a restaurant. Revenue from Bennett Valley has been paying down the debt, but if the course hit financial troubles, the public would be on the hook. The fact that the restaurant closed, citing challenges from the pandemic — isn’t a good sign.

Put it all together, and this is a good time to evaluate whether the city wants to operate a golf course. Last week, the council agreed to spend $150,000 to hire a consultant who will study options.

Having a professional put together options will help inform a robust public debate about the course. The study’s findings must be considered in context, though. If the goal is to meet demand for more playing fields, everyone should remember that the city never installed all the soccer and baseball fields and basketball courts that were promised when A Place to Play was built 20 years ago. Should golfers suffer for that shortfall?

If the city decides it no longer wants to offer golf as a public recreation, it should consider selling the course. Before dismantling the course and developing the land, it will be worth finding out if there are private investors who want to run the course.

Perhaps, too, officials should look for new ways to capitalize on the course. Some communities have launched caddie programs at municipal golf courses so that low-income high school students can apply for the Evans Scholarship, which awards full college tuition and room and board.

In some circles these days, golf is maligned as an affluent white man’s sport. Yet the opportunity for broader appeal is greatest on public courses that are kept affordable so that all people can enjoy hitting the links. Not everyone plays golf. But not everyone plays soccer, baseball, basketball or any other recreation. A diverse recreational portfolio enriches the entire community and helps ensure there’s something for everyone.

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