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Chambers Bay in the black but struggling

Pierce County’s Chambers Bay Golf Course overcame a wet spring, a snowy December and a flagging economy to post a small surplus in 2008, financial records show.

Clubhouse, lodging, restaurant await development

Now county officials hope the publicly owned University Place golf course can weather the continuing recession this year while the county prepares to host two major national golf tournaments there.

“I think we will see effects (from the economy) in 2009,” Tony Tipton, the county’s Chambers Bay project manager, said last week. “To what degree? We’re going to have to wait and see.”

If past is prelude, 2009 might be another tight year at Chambers Bay.

The course opened in June 2007 to national acclaim. Designed to attract affluent golfers and host national tournaments, Chambers Bay quickly earned a passel of awards as one of the nation’s top new courses.

But even as it basked in the national attention, the course struggled to meet budget last year. Rainy, cool weather hampered attendance in the spring. And the course was closed about half of December because of snow and holidays.

But golfers flocked to Chambers Bay last summer and fall. They played 38,437 rounds in 2008. The county budgeted for fewer than 37,000 rounds.

Golf still generated less money than expected because many of the rounds were played in the off-season, when the county charges less (during the peak summer months, it costs up to $169 for a round of golf at Chambers Bay).

‘UPS AND DOWNS, DEFINITELY’

But food, beverage and merchandise revenue exceeded expectations and more than covered the shortfall in golf revenue. The bottom line: Chambers Bay finished 2008 with a $45,202 surplus on revenue of just over $6 million.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with the performance of the course throughout 2008,” Tipton said. “There were ups and downs, definitely.”

Now the course faces two big challenges in 2009: toughing out the recession and preparing for the U.S. Amateur tournament next year and the U.S. Open in 2015.

The golf industry was slumping even before the recession began. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of rounds played in the Northwest declined 1.7 percent in 2007. It was the fifth decline in seven years.

Even as the number of golfers decline, hundreds of new courses have opened in recent years. Industry observers say the golf market might be overbuilt. And the recession can’t help.

Already, there are signs that the economy is taking a toll at Chambers Bay. Tipton said food and beverage sales have slowed early this year.

But he said it’s too soon to tell whether the recession will hinder demand for Chambers Bay’s brand of golf. Up to 75 percent of its business comes from April through October, so the course might not notice a difference until later this year.

‘THERE’S GOT TO BE SOME IMPACT’

For budgeting, the county is counting on fewer golf rounds this year – about 36,500. And it will monitor revenue and expenses.

“We just need to be very vigilant and continue to monitor it,” Tipton said. “Overall, there’s got to be some impact” from the economy.

Meanwhile, the United States Golf Association has advanced the county $985,000 to prepare for the tournaments. The county will use the money to build a new practice facility, alter parts of the course and meet the organization’s high course maintenance standards. Most of the work will be done by Labor Day.

County officials say the tournaments will be an economic boon. A county study last spring estimated the U.S. Open – expected to draw some 65,000 visitors a day – will generate $122 million in direct visitor spending and $17 million in tax revenue.

There is reason to doubt that claim, however. For example, the study assumed all area hotel rooms would be vacant in June 2015 without the U.S. Open, though more than 80 percent of local rooms were filled that month in recent years.

But even skeptics say events such as the U.S. Open generate money for host communities. Local officials are optimistic.

“It’s going to have such a huge economic benefit that can’t be denied,” said County Councilman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, whose district includes Chambers Bay.

The U.S. Amateur will be held in August 2010. County Executive Pat McCarthy said it’s important to ensure that event is successful to lay the groundwork for the U.S. Open five years later, which should have a much larger impact on the regional economy.

“I think it will have a positive economic impact for all of Washington state,” McCarthy said. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure that it’s successful.”

David Wickert: 253-274-7341

blogs.thenewstribune.com/politics

2008 BY THE NUMBERS

$6,057,751

Revenue

$6,012,549

Expenses

$45,202

Surplus

38,437

Rounds played

36,961

Rounds budgeted

52%

Players who live out of Pierce County

22%Players who live in Pierce County

26%

Residency not classified

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