The future of Sumner’s financially troubled golf course once again is in question, with the City Council mulling whether to keep it or sell.
The 18-hole course, which sits on 146 acres on Sumner’s northern end, opened about 17 years ago. It was developed with the idea it would sustain itself and after two decades turn a profit.
But Sumner Meadows Golf Links isn’t generating enough revenue to cover the debt incurred to buy the land and build the course. The city has had to subsidize it, drawing from its sewer utility and from the general fund that pays for police, parks and other day-to-day services, city officials said.
The past two years alone, those subsidies have totaled about $1.5 million – roughly half from the general fund, they said.
The city also must pay back about $900,000 in internal loans it’s made to the golf course from the cemetery endowment, stormwater utility and general fund.
A decision about the course could come soon, as Sumner leaders are in the midst of preparing the 2013-14 city budget.
“I think the council wants to do the right thing,” Mayor Dave Enslow said. “I think the council wants to hear from the people and try to do what the people want.”
But he said Sumner can’t afford to continue subsidizing the course.
The City Council considered selling it about eight years ago. When the community pushed back, council members decided to keep it.
The city hired Billy Casper Golf, a management company, to run it.
Last year, 38,032 rounds were played. That was an improvement over 2010, but the city still didn’t break even. The city last year collected $652,601 in greens fees from those golf rounds. That left about $22,000 in income after paying what the city owed Billy Casper under its contract.
And the city still had to make debt payments.
The city issued bonds to buy the land and build the golf course, and still owes about $5.77 million, including this year’s amount. The debt is set to retire in about 2019.
There also is the issue of the internal loans; state auditors earlier this year criticized Sumner for taking too long to pay back some money. The city is supposed to formulate a repayment plan.
The city recently sent a survey to residents to gauge how they want officials to proceed with the golf course, including whether they’d be willing to pay higher property taxes to keep it.
The results are expected early next month.
City officials say their research indicates Sumner Meadows could sell as a golf course for $1.5 million to $2 million. Selling the land for development could yield several times that.
The city owns a total of about 280 acres on and around the golf course, much of which is open space. Of that, 172 acres are considered developable, the city said.
Selling a portion – a little more than three-quarters – could net $35 million, the city estimates.
For Deputy Mayor Steve Allsop, that’s an attractive figure he says could allow the city to buy other open space in Sumner.
He points out that the golf course doesn’t see a high rate of use among Sumner residents. About 3 percent of users come from the city, according to city data. The biggest block of users – 15 percent – comes from Auburn.
At least one Sumner council member doesn’t like the idea of selling. Randy Hynek said the golf course and surrounding land are rich resources. And he doesn’t feel city leaders have given residents enough information about options.
David Kendall, Sumner Meadows general manager, said the course this year is seeing an uptick in play. Rounds are up about 17 percent this month over last September, he said.
The course has had some bad luck in recent years. In 2009, the clubhouse was destroyed in a flood. Kendall said 2009 and 2010 also were unusually rainy. Plus, there was the slumping economy.
Jon Swanson of Sumner, a golfer and former council member, said he understands why it might be appealing to sell the course, but he hopes that doesn’t happen.
“As far as recreational and green space, I think it’s worth figuring out a way to keep it,” he said.