The grass is always greener on the side of the fence where there is less grass

To a cynic, the deterioration of John Blumberg golf course sounds like the pretext to its sale. But there is no plan to shoot the proverbial hippo — yet.

Winnipeg will inevitably face pressure to consider selling off golf courses again — and possibly even parks

An early spring day on the Winnipeg Canoe Club Golf Course, whose lease expires on April 30, 2019. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Four years after city council decided Winnipeg no longer needed to own 81 hectares of riverfront Headingley property, John Blumberg Golf Course remains in the city's hands.

A simple majority was all it took for council to declare John Blumberg surplus to the city's needs. But it will take a two-thirds majority on council to approve the actual sale, if and when city real-estate officials get around to putting the property up for sale.

Such is the bar for getting rid of city-owned green space, whether it's a tot lot in an older neighbourhood, a baseball diamond in the 'burbs or an orphan golf course in a separate municipality.

The two-thirds rule underscores how seriously the city takes the mere idea of disposing of open spaces. Selling off green space is also politically problematic, as Coun. Russ Wyatt and former mayor Sam Katz learned in 2013.

That year, the Transcona councillor and the former mayor spent $90,000 worth of public funds on an ad campaign that extolled the virtues of selling off golf courses. This tactic failed so miserably, a plan to sell up to a dozen city golf courses wound up getting watered down to a single set of links — John Blumberg — and council also defeated a separate plan to lease out four other golf courses.

Today, the city continues to own and operate three golf courses and lease out seven others. As well, it has a management deal in place at Harbour View in northeastern Winnipeg.

There's a management deal in place at city-owned Harbour View golf course. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)
There are no rounds taking place at John Blumberg, thanks to a dispute over the course conditions between its longtime manager and the city. As a result, the Winnipeg-owned links in Headingley are unlikely to open in 2017.

To a cynic, the deterioration of the course sounds like the pretext to its sale. But there was no plan to shoot the proverbial hippo, says the second-in-command in Winnipeg's public service.

"The obligation to keep the course in a state of repair was in fact entirely on the contractor, so in terms of the city desiring this to happen, that simply isn't the case," said Michael Jack, Winnipeg's chief corporate services officer.

But the course will be sold, likely prompting another round of hand-wringing over the disposal of city-owned public space. Municipal officials ought to steel themselves, as this likely won't be the last time they'll be forced to consider selling off a golf course.

The pressure to get rid of links is evident in the fiscal scorecard for the City of Winnipeg's Golf Services special operating agency, which is supposed to be run like a business. The agency's 2016 business plan called for slightly more than $1 million worth of transfers from the city but a somewhat paradoxical year-end surplus of $712,000.

Winnipeg operates golf courses not to make money, but ensure people who like to golf have an affordable means of doing so.

"Municipal golf courses operate in a certain space. They tend to offer rounds for people who are looking for a different level of service than [that offered at] the fancier clubs, with the higher fees," Jack said.

City council voted to declare the John Blumberg Golf Course surplus in 2013. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
For how long the city engages in this marginal practice is anyone's guess. On one hand, the number of rounds at municipal courses has held somewhat steady in recent years, after a a big drop about a decade ago.

On the other hand, the city is facing increasing financial pressures and golf does not seem, at least on the surface, like a core service. When city golf-course leases start running out — the deal at the Canoe Club is due in 2019, followed by Tuxedo Golf Course in 2021 and Wildewood Club in 2023 — the city will be faced with the same decision again.

What's changed is no one is clamouring to sell golf courses right now. Coun. Wyatt, who suffered serious political bruising during the 2013 debate, now favours converting golf courses to parks instead of selling them.

"I believe a lot of the golf courses that we have in the city could be part of our parks system," Wyatt said Tuesday in an interview, singling out the city-owned Kildonan Park course as an example.

"It's a shame in some ways that you literally have half the green space reserved for just [a] golf course when you could probably have it used for families and everyone else. It would be wonderful to be able to actually merge that into a larger and bigger and better Kildonan Park."

Daniel McIntyre Coun. Cindy Gilroy, who's responsible for special operating agencies in her capacity as council's innovation chair, also suggested golf courses could become parks.​

"I'm somebody that believes our golf courses are somewhat of a treasure," she said. "We might want to change the use of that green space."

The problem is, the city isn't exactly doing a great job managing parks. The city has a total of 1,000 parks and open spaces that range in size from large regional parks such as Kildonan to neighbourhood playgrounds to grass-covered buffer zones. Every summer yields complaints from residents about unmowed lawns, unwieldy weeds and unkempt grounds.

A city report that suggested one in 10 park assets are in lousy condition, physically, didn't even approach the thorny issue of trimming back thistles and dandelions.

Perhaps that's why Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, the chair of council's protection, community services and parks committee, said he's open to the idea of getting rid of some of the city's smallest open spaces.

"In some areas of the city, there are higher concentrations of tot lots. I'd say we're probably the tot-lot capital of Canada," Pagtakhan said on Tuesday.

Given Winnipeg's ever-growing fiscal crunch, the grass is always going to appear greener on the side of managing fewer hectares of grass.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.