London’s city-owned River Road golf course has seen its final round after council voted 9-5 on Tuesday to close the money-losing course and sell the land.
The vote came after a two-hour debate on the issue, which drew letters from more than 50 Londoners who argued against closing the course, a move that leaves two golf properties remaining in a city golf program that has struggled in recent years to operate in the black.
Key to the decision was the challenges facing the city’s golf program laid out in a KPMG report filed last year. For decades, city-owned golf courses covered not only their expenses but for a time generated up to a $1 million in revenue to fund other city recreation services.
But slipping golf participation in recent years has put pressure on a program that since the 1920s has operated under the principle that the golf program should pay for itself through green fees. A city report, however, says there is now only $158,000 left in the reserve fund of a program that faces $6 million in needed capital costs over the next 10 years.
The city’s other two golf properties, Thames Valley (18 holes, plus a nine-hole course) and Fanshawe (36 holes, plus a nine-hole course for people with disabilities) will continue to operate.
Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen was one of five councillors to vote against the closure, arguing golf is one of the few recreational activities that can be done relatively safely while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. River Road didn’t open last year, a move by council to save money as the city faced rising costs due to COVID-19.
‘Worst possible time’ to close
“I think this is the worst possible time that we could be closing this golf course, right in the middle of a pandemic,” said Van Meerbergen. “We don’t know how this golf course can perform because we kept it closed and I think that was a wrong decision.”
Van Meerbergen put forward a motion to delay the decision by a year, so council could see how the course performs over a season when other recreational activities will be limited due to the pandemic. That motion fell by a 5-9 vote.
Councillors voting to support the staff recommendation for closure, including Maureen Cassidy, argued that River Road is a proven under-performer and that more time operating would only amount to more losses.
“This is a looming deficit, this $6 million in capital expenditures we have that we can’t fund right now,” said Cassidy.
With golf revenue as the only funding source for the program, Cassidy said maintaining the status quo in the face of losses would eventually leave taxpayers with the tab.
Coun. Shawn Lewis agreed it’s time for the city to walk away, with River Road lagging behind the city’s other two courses.
“One year’s data is not going to change a 30-year history of this course,” he said.
Other councillors pointed out that selling River Road buys some time but on its own the move won’t be enough to fix underlying financial challenges with the city golf program.
Staff predict selling the property could yield about $1.8 million, as some of the property is on a flood plain.
“Something needs to happen but it’s more than just this, and that’s what scares me a bit,” said Coun. Turner.
Members of council voting to support staff’s recommendation to close the course include Mayor Ed Holder, Lewis, Turner, Deputy Mayor Josh Morgan, Elizabeth Peloza, Maureen Cassidy, Mo Salih, Ariele Kayabaga and Phil Squire. Voting against closure were councillors Michael Van Holst, Van Meerbergen, Steve Lehman and Steven Hillier. Coun. Jesse Helmer abstained from the vote, declaring a conflict of interest because his father works for a golf organization.
The vote goes for final approval at next week’s meeting of full council.