Pierce County wisely cuts losses on one of three golf courses

Regulars at the Fort Steilacoom Golf Course will have plenty of other options to play after the course closes this fall. (Drew Perine/The News Tribune)
Regulars at the Fort Steilacoom Golf Course will have plenty of other options to play after the course closes this fall. (Drew Perine/The News Tribune) The News Tribune file photo, 2009

Obeying the laws of diminishing returns, Pierce County has wisely decided to dump a depreciating asset. As of the end of September, it will no longer operate and maintain Fort Steilacoom Golf Course.

In 2018, the county budgeted $421,640 to allow a dwindling number of people to keep playing the 9-hole layout with undersized greens and overgrown trees. The revenue expectation is only $280,000.

It doesn’t take an MBA to know that’s bad stewardship of taxpayer money.

The golf course adjacent to Western State Hospital in Lakewood was grossly underused. For the past 10 years, there’s been a 48 percent decline in play. Anemic revenues like that can’t offset the cost of keeping the course running or making necessary upgrades.

In 2010-2011, the estimated cost of improvements stood at $674,000, which is no surprise in light of Fort Steilacoom’s manual irrigation system and gravel parking lot. Both the clubhouse and maintenance shop also need new roofs and interior/exterior paint. And the whole facility is non-compliant with federal disability law.

Don Anderson, a senior counsel to County Executive Bruce Dammeier, told the Editorial Board this week that cutting the course loose is the easy part. The county doesn’t own the land; since 1971, it has leased the 105 acres from the state Department of Natural Resources.

For now, Anderson says the course will sustain infrastructure to include the disc golf course, old baseball field and the footgolf/golf tees clubhouse.

The state has expressed interest in working with future partners including Pierce College. It also will use some space for much-needed staff parking at the psychiatric hospital.

Don’t expect a swell of public outrage over the closure, especially since there are two public courses, Oakbrook and Meadow Park, within two miles.

If there were an uproar, Anderson would know about it; after all, he’s also the mayor of Lakewood.

Letting go of the failing course will also allow the county to focus on its two remaining golf assets: Chambers Bay and Spanaway Lake.

“We have two really nice golf courses,” Anderson said. “We want to make them even better.”

In 2018, the county allocated nearly $1.8 million for the Spanaway Lake course with an anticipated 85 percent cost recovery.

A similar cost model is in place at Chambers Bay, although the investment is much larger there, as one would expect for this jewel of the parks system. The county projects to spend nearly $6.1 million to keep the Scottish Links course in shape this year. It’s also installing new grass in an effort to lure the USGA here for another U.S. Open championship.

Some might question Pierce County being in the golf course business at all. In 2003, the game began to see waning participation, not just in Pierce County but around the U.S. The number of rounds played declined between 2016 and 2017 at all three county-owned courses, including a 19 percent drop at Spanaway Lake and 22 percent at Fort Steilacoom.

But according to the National Golf Foundation, popularity is now on an upswing.

Businesses like Topgolf, a Dallas-based company with its eye on 11 acres near the Tacoma Dome, is a high-tech version of the game wherein players strike micro-chipped balls from hitting bays. The Tacoma location would be the first Topgolf outlet in Washington.

Fircrest Golf Club reports a steady rise in membership. Another private golf facility, Tacoma Firs, will close this fall for a $10 million makeover. It’s slated to reopen next spring.

But the county still has the best public opportunities. While they’re not always cost-neutral, golf courses enhance our quality of life — and in the case of Chambers Bay, tourism appeal — while providing a unique form of open space.

Notwithstanding the liquidation of Fort Steilacoom Golf Course, we wouldn’t want to live in a region without them.