Fiscal Responsibility Must Trump Promise on Ft. Sheridan Golf Course

The proposed re-development of the Fort Sheridan golf course places the Lake County Board of Commissioners between a rock and a hard place. Today, fiscal responsibility confronts a legacy public promise. There is plenty of merit to honoring agreements made in 1996 which included a commitment to restore the existing golf course. But 2009 is not 1996.  Golf play has been in steady decline for over a decade. Highland Park’s Sunset Valley golf course has lost over ¾ of a million dollars in the last 6 years.  In the same timeframe, Lake County’s three municipal golf courses have seen revenues decline by over 1/3 and two of the three courses have operation costs in excess of fees.

The choice is not trivial. Fort Sheridan golf course re-development estimates are north of $25 million. And even if pricing concessions or project modifications were to bring real costs below estimates, ongoing operations together with debt service threaten to drive this endeavor into the red. In fact, losses might compromise the solvency of the fund that’s keeping the existing county municipal courses limping along.  The risk is real.

It’s an unfortunate outcome from a lot of well-intentioned people who worked hard to make the entire US Army property transfer work, which by and large it has. But they had no crystal ball.  And in today’s hard reality we believe that fiscal responsibility must trump prior commitments.  Adjustments must be made and the golf course should not be built.

Sincerely,

Sonny Cohen
847.971.1101
Sonny1@gmail.com

Letter to the Editor of Highland Park News (for 2/5/09 publishing)

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6 thoughts on “Fiscal Responsibility Must Trump Promise on Ft. Sheridan Golf Course

  1. Thanks, Allen.

    It is always interesting to understand how different people interpret what we hear. I think we are all from different planets! The kids, who I respect greatly, came from an environmental studies class. So, of course, they spoke to the environmental issues. There is some validity to their position but if this project goes forward, I have a lot of confidence that the LCFPD will make an effort to satisfy multiple objectives. My objections are economic, not environmental.

    It is interesting to note that while we wrestle over whatever stuff from the golf course might or might not go into Lake Michigan, we’ve got this Fort Sheridan Landfill #7 leaching publicly acknowledged dangerous stuff into the lake every day. But that’s just another story! A sad one.

    I was at Fort Sheridan today. It is a magnificent property. Truth is, it would make an incredible golf course. Unfortunately, I don’t think the economics support it today. And I don’t think they will for the predictable future. So I have to be against re-developing this as a golf course. But I’m not anti-golf and understand the appeal. Wrong time, wrong place. Thanks for your input.

    Sonny

    Sonny

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  2. Sonny,
    Please understand that I wasn’t speaking to you specifically. I was addressing the tone and tenor of the public forum held late January. From what I have read, teachers transported high school students to speak out on the negative environmental impact posed by golf course operations. That is a myth that cannot go unchallenged. At least not by me.

    My initial response was prefaced on the basis of the LCFPD being “obligated” to build a facility. (Personally, I couldn’t care one way or the other). The point was 1). $35M is an outrageous number to even consider and 2). If it “had” to be built, it could be constructed as a living laboratory for research on turf, native prairie, etc. and provide benefits beyond recreation.

    Regards,
    Allen Parkes
    PGA / CGCS

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  3. Ed,

    Although we’ve made a mockery of the phrase, “If I’d known then what I know now….” the reality is that in 1996 this probably looked like a good deal. But today it is a burden on Lake County. The existing golf courses are struggling for solvency with 2 of three losing money and one more non-producer could jeopardize the Enterprise fund that supports the entire operation. Or at least that’s what I read in the consultant’s report.

    It is inappropriate to suggest, as you have, a plan by LCFPD to avoid meeting their commitment. This is an unfortunate situation that does not need to be inflamed by your suggestions of misdeed. Please don’t go this direction. Good people made their best decisions based on information they had. At that time, the golf course was in disrepair but operational and golf was in its ascendancy. While community-owned open space remains a perpetual good and is the core of our Forest Preserves (hence the phrase “preserve”), a specific activity like golf being legislated in perpetuity was well-intentioned but wrong in hindsight. Now we have to clean up our mess, not perpetuate it.

    Regarding the Chevy Chase golf course, I stand by my numbers and conclusion. As a matter of public policy, the course receives a subsidy of property tax income. Without that subsidy, the operations would be in the red. If the Wheeling community sees this as a public benefit, they are most certainly entitled to subsidize the activity. More power to them.

    I would be willing to speculate that Chevy Chase’s performance, in spite of its high caliber and award winning status, has reflected the deteriorating performance of golf courses nationwide. I hope this stabilizes and the course remains viable.

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  4. Sonny, if it is “not appropriate”, then why did the LCFPD accept the property, for free, with a deed restriction requiring a golf course to operate on this land? Are you saying there was a plan all along to try to get out of running a golf course and that LCFPD will be rewarded for such a bait and switch? Perhaps the Army will let them out of the deed for the original $10 million LCFPD offered for the land…hmm, $10 million for a former airstrip-turned-weedfield, such a deal for the citizens of Lake County!

    PS: You should read the financial statements from Wheeling more carefully.
    http://www.wheelingparkdistrict.com/District-Info/pdfs/finances/2007CAFR.pdf
    Page 11 of the report clearly states that the Chevy Chase Country Club had an operating profit before depreciation. Depreciation primarily applies to their clubhouse/banquet facility, not the course itself. The budget issues there appear to be more banquet-related — for example, they spent $25K more than budgeted on meat.

    You seem to have the politician’s eye to pulling out the provocative statements and using them as headlines. I think all parties are better-served by looking at the whole picture.

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  5. Allen,

    Thanks for your response and consideration. Your points are well taken and many of the environmental arguments, while fundamentally valid, are presented in a way that is hyperbolic or specious. I don’t think anyone is calling golf courses “toxic waste pits”.

    Wheeling has a beautiful course that is part of its brand and I’m sure there are public policy reasons to insure its continued operation.

    But let’s look at the facts. Award winning and spectacular Chevy Chase Country Club, where you work, for the year ending 12/31/07, lost $369,489. Only after being bolstered by $245,812 in public property taxes, interest and contributions, does the course operation cover its costs. I suspect the revenue trend of this course is consistent with declining nationwide performance.

    Lake County tax payers should not be on the hook for a new golf course. Guaranteeing open land in perpetuity is one thing, guaranteeing a specific sporting event, no matter how beloved, is not appropriate.

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  6. So you are obligated to build a golf course? You needn’t spend $15 million nor pose a hazard to the fragile ecosystem. I suggest adopting best management practices already successfully employed by fantastic golf course supts from around the world. Golf courses are not toxic waste pits. Organic fertilizers and bio-fungicides are applied around the world with great success. Take a look at my friend Matt Crowther’s property on Martha’s Vineyard. It can be done and it can be done well.
    http://www.eifg.org/portal/portal/item_download.aspx?item_id=325
    Allen Parkes
    PGA Professional / Certified Golf Course Supt
    Traditions at Chevy Chase Country Club
    Wheeling, Illinois

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