With River Road Golf Course facing closure, golfer says not-for-profit model could work

A London golf fan who also works as a business consultant says going to a not-for-profit management model might help save River Road golf course, which staff is recommending for closure.

JC Reyes was part of task force that faced the same decision about city-owned course in 2011

The City of London operates three golf courses and a staff report coming to council on Tuesday recommends closing the River Road course in the city's east end. (iStock)

London's River Road Golf Course is again deep in the rough but a London-based business consultant, golf-lover and Harvard business school graduate says he has a plan that could deliver the hole-in-one the course needs to stay open.

Juan Carlos (JC) Reyes has held a City of London golf membership for 10 years. He was on the task force that looked at ways to save the course when it was flagged for falling revenue projections back in 2011. 

"I'd like to see this course stay open for my grandchildren," said Reyes, whose job with Efficiency Management Consulting involves helping businesses operate better.

River Road will certainly need to find some efficiencies if it's to stay open.

A staff report up for debate at tonight's committee-of-the-whole meeting says low revenue at the east-end course threatens to drag down the other two city-owned courses, Thames Valley and Fanshawe. For more than 90 years the city has operated its golf program guided by the principle that its courses should pay for themselves, with green fees filling a fund that covers operating and capital costs.

For decades, the model was not only self-sustaining but also a revenue generator that helped fund other city recreational programs. River Road was added to the roster in 1991, but by the 2000s the number of rounds was in decline.

Numbers in the report paint a picture of a program that without changes, can't support the "golf pays for golf" model in the near future.

Among the details in the report:

  • Rounds at River Road are down 37 per cent since 2012.
  • More than $6 million in capital upgrades are needed at the city's three courses over the next 10 years.
  • The city's golf program lost almost $106,000 last year, leaving only $158,000 remaining in a reserve fund to operate all three courses. 

The report says the program is "at a tipping point" and adds that if a fix can't be found, "the unfunded infrastructure gap will only continue to grow." The report is recommending the course be closed and sold.

Despite its challenges, Reyes is a big fan of the beleaguered course near Veterans Memorial Parkway and believes the city needs to think outside the box to save it. He wants the city to retain ownership of the course, but hand its management over to a not-for-profit entity created to run the day-to-day operations. 

Reyes believes high operating costs, not a lack of golfers, is what's really holding back River Road. He says under his model, there could be creative solutions to keep costs down. For example, golfers could pay for their memberships by doing work at the course. 

Juan Carlos Reyes says the city should find a way to keep River Road Golf Course, which he says has surged in value since the city last considered closing it back in 2011. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

He admits he doesn't have answers about whether this would even be allowed, given that most city facilities are staffed by union members. He said what's important is looking at innovative approaches. 

"It is an asset that the city will be losing, how the logistics will work out, we'll figure out how to make it work," said Reyes. 

Reyes said his model could include a focus on expanding golf participation to people from marginalized communities who may not otherwise get a chance to try the sport.  

Reyes also said the "golf should pay for golf" concept is not applied to other recreational activities the city underwrites, whether it's swimming or ice skating. 

Officials with the city's parks and recreation department said Reyes's model is interesting, but would also face a number of hurdles, with staffing at the top of a long list of challenges. 

Regardless of how it's done, support for saving River Road appears strong. 

As of last week, more than 50 people had filed submissions to the strategic priorities and policy committee ahead of Tuesday's meeting. All wrote in favour of keeping the course open. 

"As a senior citizen, golf is my only form of safe exercise," wrote Dung Won Shin. "If River Road closes, then that would mean that residents in south and east London, like myself, would have to drive all the way across the city to get this form of exercise."

A staff report says the city's golf program is at a 'tipping point,' with falling revenues putting pressure on the 'golf pays for golf' model. (Facebook/City of London Municipal Golf Courses)

Others against closing the course question the financial information presented in the staff report. Council voted to not open River Road last year to save $80,000 as the city faced looming budget challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. But financial information from last year suggests the course operated at a $315,000 deficit by not opening. 

River Road is in Coun. Michael Van Holst's ward and he's heard the cries from constituents against its closure. He told CBC News he welcomes new ideas from people like Reyes who bring perspectives from outside city hall. 

Until he's seen other options, Van Holst said he won't be in favour of closing the course. 

"I'd like to try some other ideas first," said Van Holst. "Selling the course is at the bottom of my list."

Local golfer and management consultant Juan Carlos Reyes tells London Morning why he feels the city should keep River Road Golf course operating. 8:25


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