County open to talking about Indian Trails

February 5, 2012
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When consultants recommended that management of the Grand Rapids-owned Indian Trails Golf Course be transferred to Kent County, they reported both governmental units would benefit from such an arrangement.

Pros Consulting and Golf Convergence Inc., which were hired by the city to develop a business plan for Indian Trails, felt the transition would allow Grand Rapids to retain ownership of the course, lower the labor cost to operate and maintain it, give the course a greater visibility and improve the management of it. The firms also felt having the county take on Indian Trails would make Kent’s recreational system more diverse and give the county an additional marketing opportunity.

The county owns the 18-hole L.E. Kaufman Golf Course, which has a history of returning a profit, and under the consultants’ plan, Kent would also run a converted 9-hole Indian Trails. The consultants said the county would then operate two courses with two driving ranges in different sections of the city. They felt revenues to Indian Trails would increase, and customer service and access would improve.

They also said both governments would be able to chalk up another collaborative effort and also create economies of scale, especially to maintain the course.

“This process should commence with the creation of a master plan to reinforce converting the facility to a 9-hole golf course with a driving range, which will produce the greatest return on investment,” read the report from Pros Consulting, which estimated it would cost about $500,000 to convert Indian Trails.

The consultants then teed off on the city’s lack of involvement with the course. “It is our professional opinion that a schism exists between the golf course management and staff and senior (city) leadership. With only two full-time seasonal workers, during interviews conducted it was clearly stated that field managers and staff feel disenfranchised from the city’s support network and resources,” read the report.

“The vision and mission for the course has never been explained to them. Requests for meetings to craft a business plan were denied. Requisitions for additional financial resources were not considered.”

City Commissioner Ruth Kelly said the city has deferred maintenance of the course for a long time. Years ago, the city hired a private manager to maintain and operate Indian Trails. But the course was left to deteriorate so badly during that stretch that the city took Indian Trails back in shoddier shape.

Kelly said the city doesn’t want to sell the course because residents appreciate having the greenspace in their southeast-side neighborhood. She also said the city isn’t interested in reducing the amount of greenspace and park property that it owns; doing that would be contrary to the “Green GR” plan that City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz developed and commissioners made official city policy.

County parks director Roger Sabine said Kent could be interested in taking over operations at Indian Trails if doing so wouldn’t increase the department’s expenditures.

“The city of Grand Rapids and Kent County need to look at the numbers and really see if it makes sense for both parties,” he said. “We’d certainly want to make sure that it doesn’t raise the expense of the county’s operation, and that’s part of the equation that makes sense for us. We have a pretty low cost structure in the way we do business.”

Indian Trails lost $89,000 last year and nearly $96,000 the previous year, while Kaufman had a surplus of $53,000 in 2011.

“We did OK last year. We did better the year before. The county is always interested in talking to other parties to see what makes sense. Certainly, the parks department has had a long history of collaborating,” said Sabine, who added that the city could also look to another private firm to run the course, preferably one with a national reputation for performing that service.

There are 26 golf courses within a 10-mile radius of Indian Trails; the consultants highlighted nine as direct competitors. Kaufman was listed as one of those competitors.

The consultants asked Indian Trails’ golfers what they liked and disliked about the course. They said the course provided them with value, the staff was friendly, tee times were readily available and it was an affordable entry to the game of golf at $32 for 18 holes with a cart. On the flip side, they didn’t like the condition of the fairways, which are often wet because of irrigation leaks. They also reported there weren’t enough restrooms on the course, and the course was poorly designed.

The consultants noted that the city hasn’t kept track of the golfers who play its course.

“How can you manage a golf course if you don’t know who your customers are? The efficiency of the city of Grand Rapids is significantly below national standards. Most golf courses have tracked at least 60 percent of their customers. This is a stark contrast to less than none of the customers being tracked by Indian Trails,” read the report.

It’s highly unlikely that a decision will be made on whether there will be a managerial change for Indian Trails in the very near future as talks won’t take place between the city and the county until next fall at the earliest.

“Both the city and the county have agreed that it’s not going to happen during the 2012 golf season,” said Sabine. “It’s a topic that is going to take some time to work through and make sure that both parties are interested in doing it.”

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