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Red ink at Black Rock Golf Course

County-owned course struggling in rough economy

County-owned course struggling in rough economy

January 25, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- With less money in local residents' budgets for leisure pastimes, the rough economy is taking a toll on revenue at Black Rock Golf Course, the county-owned golf course off Mt. Aetna Road, officials said.

"We're looking at different things to try to keep play up or pick play up, but until the economy picks up, there's just no disposable income out there to play a $50 round of golf," said James L. Sterling, Washington County's director of buildings, grounds and parks.

The golf course is anticipating a projected budget shortfall of $80,000 to $90,000 for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, Commissioner James F. Kercheval said. Officials are hoping for good weather this spring, which could lessen the damage, but they aren't optimistic.

"It's gonna be tough," Kercheval said.

Darrell Whittington, the county's director of golf, said Black Rock is already down to "bare bones" when it comes to costs. Any further cuts would begin to affect maintenance, which would only make things worse, he said.

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Black Rock is run as a self-supporting operation, meaning its revenue must pay for its operating costs, Sterling said. As officials look ahead to next year's budget, they are considering the unattractive possibility of raising rates.

"I don't want to, but we'll probably have to," Sterling said.

In the meantime, the golf course is getting creative with advertising and incentives. Over the holidays, it offered a deal where golfers could buy two twilight rounds and get one free, and it is currently offering golfers the chance to buy five rounds and get a sixth free.

The course collects e-mail addresses for a monthly giveaway drawing and uses them to send out an e-mail blast on Thursdays encouraging weekend play. The e-mails contain a code word to receive a discount, Whittington said. The e-mails have brought in some play, but he said he would like to see more.

Regardless of how bad things get, it is unlikely that Black Rock will close, Whittington said.

"It's a big asset for the county for attracting new residents, new businesses, things like that," he said.

Sterling had a similar message when he briefed the Washington County Commissioners earlier this month.

"We've got a multimillion investment out there that we don't want to lose," he said. "We're gonna do the best we can to keep our revenue up with our expenses."

Whittington has been compiling data on how other golf courses in the region are dealing with the economy. So far, those he's talked to have reported play down between 8 percent and 20 percent, he said.

One of the few not feeling the impact of the economy is Hagerstown Greens at Hamilton Run, the city-owned golf course off Cleveland Avenue, said Lewie Thomas, recreation and facilities manager for the City of Hagerstown.

From 2007 to 2008, the city's course actually saw increased revenue in most categories, including 18-hole play and twilight play.

Thomas said the increased play might reflect the fact that, as golfers tighten their belts, they might be choosing the city course, which is smaller and much less expensive than Black Rock.

"If you just wanted to get out and play golf, just for the sake of getting out and playing, the city course, even though it's small and everything, it's a good bargain," he said.

However, the city's course never brings in enough money to cover its operating costs, Thomas said. Like the swimming pools, the golf course is funded by the city as a recreational service to residents, he said.

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