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Analysis: Making Bradford Creek Work

by Lisa Wilbourne

Quick Summary

To make Bradford Creek, the city’s golf course, able to cover its own operating costs, a golf course management and operational consultant reports the city needs to do these four things.

  1. Hire a general manager.
  2. Increase marketing to get more rounds played per year.
  3. Increase playing fees.
  4. Fund capital improvements.

The Reportphoto by LW

At city council’s January 14 meeting, James Keegan, golf strategist and managing principal at Golf Convergence, a Colorado-based firm focused on golf course management and operational analysis, summarized a 90-page report prepared by his firm. It details ways the city can address the golf course’s problems to make Bradford Creek more efficient and financially viable in the years to come.

Admitting “from merely a financial perspective, the greatest return to the City will result from the sale of the asset,” the report goes on to state some reasons (pride among them) why that would be politically unpopular: “resistance from golfers, deviation from the mission of Recreation and Parks Department, … and the recognition that the original acquisition was ill-advised” (page 5).

While acknowledging an ongoing need for the city to fund capital expenses, the report makes three recommendations that will allow Bradford Creek to cover its own operational costs (pp 4-5).

  1. Staffing is realigned to recognize the seasonal nature of the business, the skills and interest of the existing staff, and the need to retain a general manager skilled in the business of golf with an emphasis on marketing, yield management, customer service and leadership.
  2. Golfers acknowledge their responsibility for paying fair market value for the experience provided by supporting an increase in green fees.
  3. A capital investment of $400,000 is made by the City to bring the golf course in-line with current industry standards. This investment will fund bunker renovation, strategic tree removal and reduction of maintainable turf initiatives. [The normal golf course, reads page 8, has 100 acres; Bradford Creek has 185. To stop maintaining 85 acres at Bradford Creek, that is, to “shift them to a more natural state,” as City Planner Christopher Padgett says, would save on maintenance costs.]

Keegan’s firm also reported that the only way for the course to pay its own operating expenses is by increasing both the cost of playing and the number of rounds played.

“The sad conclusion is that expenses for Bradford Creek are in line with industry benchmarks in all significant and material respects. The opportunity to create fiscal sustainability will result primarily from an increase in rounds and from the yield [profit] per round played” (page 51).

The following chart, from page 71 of the report, shows Bradford Creek’s strengths and weaknesses. There are 16 total areas in strategic, tactical and operational categories. Four areas are classified as positive, five as negative and seven as neutral.

The good

  • Weather — recent. An “uncontrollable factor in golf course gross revenue.” In Greenville, the ten-year average is 259 playable days per year, with three of the last six being significantly above the average (pp 36-39).
  • Course layout. “The core asset, the championship layout, is clearly superior. … Bradford Creek’s back 9 holes are very good” (page 13).
  • Tournament/Outing site
  • Parking

The bad

  • Demographics. “…the demographics conducive to golf are weak” (page 5). “Two-thirds of golf rounds are played by those with a household income of at least $85,500, and whose median age is 41.9. For every round played in the U.S. by someone who is Hispanic or African American, Caucasians play seven rounds. For every round played by a female, men play 5.1 rounds” (page 86). Compare this profile of a golfer with statistics on Greenville residents (below, from page 30), and with one of the “puzzling truths” given on page 6: “Nationally, golfers average 41.5 years of age with a median household income of $85,800, and nearly 80% are Caucasian and 78% male. The customers of the Bradford Creek Golf Course average 47.82 years of age, have median household income of $88,285, and are 86% male. Golf appeals to only 6.5% of the population within a 30-mile radius of Bradford Creek.” Additionally, “The City of Greenville’s population is 13% younger than the national average” (page 87).    
  • Financial. “There are four golf courses within 10 minutes of downtown Greenville, three of them private clubs, and all are reported as financially struggling. There is need for only slightly more than two golf courses in the Greenville market” [Emphasis not added] (page 8).  “BCGC is in need of capital and is likely to see short-term operational losses. Thus, the City Council members must decide to what extent they are willing to subsidize, in the short-term, a recreational asset utilized by a small minority of the population, a minority that has the financial resources to enjoy golf and whose need is adequately met in the Greenville community by private enterprise” (page 71). See the financial analysis beginning on page 46 of the report for more information.
  • Deferred Capital. “Because so little has been invested in the golf course, deferred capital expenditures are approaching $2 million” (page 6).
  • Clubhouse. “The functionality of the clubhouse could be improved, at a minimum, by creating a more welcoming atmosphere. We suggest television sets, a limited menu more diverse than hot dogs and cold sandwiches, and beer on draft” (page 9).
  • Food and beverage. See “Clubhouse,” above.

The neutral

  • Vision — competitive mix. “The vision for the facility isn’t defined” (page 74).
  • POS/TTRS (Point-of-Sale/Tee-Time Reservation System). Integrating point-of-sale with a Tee-Time Reservation System is part of the formula for profitable operation (page 42). “Because the POS system is not properly utilized, measuring any of the key metrics is not possible at this time” (page 58). “Only 22% of the salient customer information was being captured within the POS system” (page 69).
  • Website. “The website is graphically attractive. The rotating ‘flash’ pictures… are very effective. There are several suggestions for improvement to conform to industry best practices” (pp 40-41).
  • Agronomic. “The course layout and the associated investment is one component of a successful golf course operation. Another important element is how that asset is maintained through appropriate agronomic practices” (page 52).
  • Range/Short game.“The course has a fairly good driving range which appears adequate in width and length” (page 55). “The lighted range is a great asset and generates over 12% of the revenue of the facility’s revenue, which is beyond national benchmarks. … The putting green is a prized treasure, though the location of the short green practice facility at the end of the range renders a prized asset vastly underutilized” (page 60). “While BCGC has a fine short-game area, it is at the end of the range, and it is inaccessible and inconvenient for the majority of patrons” (page 64).
  • Golf playing preferences.
  • Customer loyalty. Data gathered through a survey (page 69).

Council’s Discussion

In a split vote (Councilors Rose Glover, Max Joyner, Dennis Mitchell and Kandie Smith for; Marion Blackburn and Calvin Mercer against), councilors asked staff to bring back options about how to proceed with the golf course and how to fund those options.

Throughout the one-hour debate preceding the final vote, councilors bounced among related issues surrounding the course: whose opinions are gathered in the decision-making process, the economic development potential of a municipal course, golf as one of many recreational opportunities provided by the city, and the budget.

Gathering more input

Joyner, believing the next step should be staff bringing back options for what to do with the golf course using information from the consultant’s analysis, responded to Blackburn’s request to hear from the Golf Advisory Commission before making a decision: “If we include every committee, we’re right back where we were. We’ve already done that.”

Responding to Mercer’s desire to “hear what [the citizens] have to say about it,” Smith said, “Are we going to let the community discuss it before we know what we’re discussing, or are we going to let staff give us options and then allow the community to have a discussion? I don’t want us to go backwards because then we’ll be wasting time.”

Economic Development

Mitchell brought up the possibility of the golf course as an economic development asset and told the council about a meeting with economic development consultants he and Mercer had attended. The consultants, according to Mitchell and Mercer, were excited at the prospect of using the course as the foundation for developing a corporate park.

Recognizing that quality of life plays a large role in where companies choose to locate, Blackburn reminded her fellow councilors, “parks serve our quality of life.”

Mercer asked staff to look at the potential economic development impact of maintaining the golf course — an amendment to the original motion that ultimately failed despite a seeming agreement on the council for staff to look at economic development impact. Here’s what Joyner had to say about Mercer’s amendment:

“The amendment is poorly structured. I trust the staff is gonna talk to the correct people anyway to bring this thing back to us. Based on what I hear Councilman Mercer saying is ‘uh-oh they’re trying to close the golf course, they’re trying to do the run around us.’ What we’re trying to do is find out if we can afford the golf course. I like the golf course, I’ve played out there. They’ve got the best driving range in Greenville. I’ve been an avid golfer all my life. … But we’re trying to make a business decision and [the consultant’s] already talked to how many people. Some of the things ya’ll are asking for, that’s what the consultant’s already done. They’ve given us the nuts and bolts and if we want to have a successful golf course, here’s what we’ve got to do [lifting 90 page report]. But even if we do this, there’s still 1.6 more golf courses in Pitt County than are needed. So we’ve got to figure out now if we can afford this success plan that they’ve given us. It’s staff’s job to tell us how we can do it or if we can’t. We’re chasing our tail, they’ve already given us this information. So I’m not supporting any amendment. I trust staff’s going to do their job on the information I’ve asked for.” 

Golf as Recreation

To gain perspective on who golfers are, Smith pointed out income information from the report, “Median Greenville household income is $38,000; median Bradford Creek user household income is $88,000; median private golf course member household income is $138,000.”

Also referring to the report, Mitchell said, “We’re looking at 6.5% of the population who play golf, who are also a financial minority, whose needs are already met.”

Glover, responding to an unstated threat to other Recreation and Parks programs, was very clear in her assessment: “We can’t cut services in any other areas, things the poor people use. We want our kids to be able to play basketball, golf, soccer or whatever they want to play, but at the same time I don’t think they should be on the cliff because of the golf course. I do not want the report that comes back to us to have any other Recreation and Parks facility in it as far as we’re gonna cut here and cut here. The lower income people are the people who are hurting most in terms of facilities. … I don’t see how we could do it.”


Though all avenues of discussion were relevant and important for council’s consensus, Mitchell hit the question council needs to address most succinctly, “Can we or can we not do it, and if we can, how?”

More than once, Joyner returned the conversation from the theoretical benefits the course could bring the city to practical matters: “We have to look at it as a council and see if we can afford it.” He repeated, “I’d like to let staff look at it and see if this is something we can afford.”

After considerable discussion had already taken place, City Manager Barbara Lipscomb expressed surprise and explained how she thought the discussion would go, “I put this on the agenda to accept the report only from the standpoint that it’s a very lengthy report. I felt that you would have a number of questions this evening for the consultant that you may want to absorb. My intent was to bring this back here maybe in a workshop. I didn’t know there would be need for further discussion. … We have a budget in place for FY14 [Fiscal Year 2014] and we don’t have the funds in that budget for this. We just have to make the decision do we want to make the investment or not? If we want to make the investment, we either have to cut some things or we have to come up with some additional money.”

Under the impression that council fully intended the city to continue operating the course, Lipscomb shared her assumption: “We’re going to keep the course, we just need to discuss how to fund it.” Mayor Allen Thomas was quick to clarify, “I don’t think there’s any assumption on that at this point.” Joyner finished, “We’re not gonna sell the land.”

Thomas said, “I am very comfortable putting this in the hands of staff to see if they can find other revenue streams. For now, this is our asset and it could be a very good asset for the city.”

Blackburn proposed a (failed) amendment to accept the report and table the discussion about how to handle the golf course until May’s budget session. Joyner, opposing, said, “We need to start the process. We just keep kicking the can down the road on this issue and other issues.”

Explaining her position and why she will not support the original motion, Blackburn said,

“The appropriate place for this is in the budget. Not only that, but I can’t think of any other park where we say, ‘not only do we want you to break even, but we want you to fund your own capital investments.’ I just don’t think we’ve done that for anything else in our city and I feel that it’s premature to do that with Bradford Creek. We’ve just now moved it away from enterprise fund, we’re about to break even — but I think it’s probably prudent to integrate this into our budget to feed this with some capital money so we avoid that downward spiral, but to do it in a way that allows us to work it in the context of our budget and within the context of all our parks needs. To separate this one out for an immediate up or down vote on $400,000 of capital investments, I would have real trouble grappling with the issue in that context. We have capital problems with so many of our parks, I can’t imagine saying, ‘If we don’t get a $400,000 investment for fill-in-the-blank park, we’re going to close it down.’ I just can’t see doing that for Bradford Creek just like I can’t see doing it for any of our other parks or recreation areas.”

Thomas responded, “That’s like chasing a shadow. Nobody has said that. Nobody has made that motion. That’s almost like grabbing something out of the air in hypothetical. I think all that’s been discussed here is pushing it to staff to do an analytical look at this report that’s already been discussed and come back with some recommendations. So we can talk about all our fears at any time, sometimes you just gotta move on. So it’s time to move on in this process here.”

Joyner added, “This golf course was first set up as an enterprise fund. It was set up to break even. … At some point in time we’ve got to look at can it be successful and if so at what price. We’ve got to look at if we’re committed to that price. I’ve been supportive of the golf course. We’re at a point now where it’s gonna take massive amounts of money to do it.”

Glover expounded, “It’s not a matter of whether we’re gonna close the golf course, it’s a matter of where the money’s gonna come from. … If the money’s not coming in, we’re going to have to act like adults and make executive decision.”

See for yourself.

  • January 14 2013 Golf Convergence report; video presentation summarizing the report before City Council, and Council’s discussion.
  • May 7 2012 report (This is a detailed 141-page report with background information including a brief history of the course, a review of facility operations, financial reviews, alternatives for operation and other pertinent information); council meeting minutes regarding Bradford Creek; video from City Council meeting.
  • May 10 2010 minutes; video from City Council meeting.

Assuming the options the staff returns to the council are not too different from the ones presented in May 2012, with the addition of specific recommendations from the consultant’s analysis included, tell us in the comments what you think is best for the city and why.

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Responses (2)

  1. John Collins says:

    I golfed there once probably seven years ago or so. I don’t own clubs but I figured I could rent them there. I was wrong. One way they could reach a broader audience is by renting clubs (if they haven’t started doing so already).

  2. Carol Collins says:

    I do agree with Buddy Zincone’s letter to the editor regarding the price of a round of golf or the price of a cart. By increasing price, revenue could either go up or down. If in a week 10 rounds are sold if the price of $1 is charged, and 9 rounds are sold if the price goes to $2, then the gain in revenue is 9×2-10×1= $8/week. On the other hand if at $2 a round only 4 rounds are sold in a week, the gain in revenue is negative (a loss): 4×2-10×1= – $2/ week. We have seen no data that tells us whether to expect a gain or loss in revenue if price is increased. (In fact it is possible to reduce the price and see a gain in revenue. That is people by so much more at the lower price that the product of price x quantity after the price decrease means more revenue.) Good summary article of the data presented and meeting!

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