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Par for the Course

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Members of the City Council aren't interested in shying away from a challenge, even if there's trouble with the green. Or greens, as the case may be.

Though the funding source remains unclear, the City Council voted last week to spend $180,000 to keep Davy Crockett golf course open through next June.

The course, considered the most challenging in the city, is also the least played and the most difficult to maintain. During budget talks last spring, the parks division had slated Crockett for permanent closure, but a council vote kept it open through this month.

"You need to add that it's the most neglected," said councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt, the impetus for putting Crockett back in the budget. "That's how it got to be where it is now. ... My desire and the desire of the people I serve in that area is that you take down the 'For Sale' sign."

But the decision to keep the "country club of Frayser" open was a bit rough. The city owns eight public golf courses, including a brand new $5.2 million 9-hole course in Whitehaven that has yet to open and the recently revamped -- but still closed -- Riverside course south of downtown. Under a special enterprise fund, golf courses are supposed to be supported by their revenue rather than by tax dollars.

"When they moved it from the general fund 10 years ago, it was because at that time, golf was a sport that was becoming more popular," parks director Cynthia Buchanan said via telephone. "It was seen as an operation that could support itself."

But golf's popularity is now on a downswing. To break even, Crockett needs to do about 30,000 rounds of golf a year. Currently, the parks division estimates it will only see about 8,000 rounds for the year.

Buchanan sees the course as an anchor for the Frayser community; because the citizens have rallied around it, there's value in keeping it open. But during a council committee meeting, Buchanan said the problem wasn't with the golf course but with trends in nearby development.

"The courses further east where new development tends to go ... those courses attract enough people to break even or make a profit," said Buchanan. "The courses further west, they don't get a large number of players. It's where your customers live. Generally, the golf course near where they live is where they're going to play."

Crockett may be able to attract players from outside the neighborhood because of its interesting terrain, but with two more public courses in nearby Millington, courses in Mississippi and in East Memphis, it's a challenge.

And with golf season in Memphis stretching from March to October, some council members wondered if the course should be shuttered for the winter months, which Buchanan said would have a "minimal" financial impact to the city.

"I don't see any point in keeping it open if no one's going to be playing there," said Carol Chumney.

But Holt championed keeping the facility open year-round. "The things we mothball usually rot away. ... It's just another way of saying we're delaying the inevitable."

But it's this type of decision that puts the city closer to going in the hole. Barely anyone plays Davy Crockett during the golf season, but the city is going to spend $180,000 to keep it open through the winter when golfers aren't on the links?

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for local government providing amenities for its citizens. In discussions such as these, I often think back on something former Charleston mayor Joe Riley said: A great city is one that both poor people and rich people can love and enjoy.

And, as such, there are plenty of city amenities that are not required to pay for themselves: community centers, parks, ball fields. But a golf course is not like a library or a community center, serving a variety of citizens and uses.

Councilman Jack Sammons has employees who live in the area and said they were more focused on the mayor's plan for a larger police force. "This golf course," he said, "they could care less about. What they care about is seeing something happen in this community."

Public amenities often raise the value of neighborhoods, but value is subjective. Our currency, for instance, isn't based on the gold standard but in people believing that it's valuable. Perhaps a lean budget and neglect have cause a once-viable amenity to deteriorate. But if the community isn't interested in golfing, is it in the public's interest to have a golf course there?

And maybe the bigger question isn't about Davy Crockett but how many municipal golf courses does one city need?

Austin has five. Atlanta has six. We have eight, almost one for every council district.

"The bottom line is that golf courses are overbuilt across the United States," said Buchanan. "All of the courses cannot be sustained with the number of golfers currently playing."

And we've got newly built and renovated courses that aren't even open yet. I'm not a golfer, but I know what it means to be teed off.

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