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An Uncertain Future For Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course

KUOW Photo/Jeannie Yandel

If you’ve never been to the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course before, it’s kind of tough to find. The course itself is way at the back of the parking lot of Edmonds Community College. The only clues you’re in the right place are the high ball nets surrounding the course. And, of course, golfers like Espie Grundy and Jackie Garmeyer, who are wheeling their clubs towards the green for their weekly tee time. “We try to play even if it’s raining,” Espie says.

Jackie’s read a little about the golf course in the newspaper, but Espie hasn’t. She’s dismayed when I tell her the Lynnwood City Council is considering closing the course. “This is such a friendly course,” Espie says. “It’s homey. Even if you don’t play, there’s a whole walking trail all around it. It’s neat.”

The Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course has been open since 1991, and for years it made enough money from user fees to sustain itself. But in 2007, when the recession started, people stopped spending money on discretionary activities like golf.

The course started sliding into debt. By 2011, the golf course had more than $1 million of debt. So the city stepped in and loaned the golf course money from other city funds.

In late 2012, the state auditor told the city it had to find another way to manage the golf course’s finances and it needed to develop a plan to repay the loans. That’s the context for the big question the Lynnwood City Council is wrestling with now. “Is there a way to make the golf course a sustainable business and pay that money back to the general fund so that there’s no loss to the city at all?” asks councilmember and mayoral candidate Mark Smith. “That’s the ideal solution.”

If the City Council can’t find a way to reach the ideal solution, there other options. Smith says one option is to close the golf course to stop accruing more debt. Another option is to sell the land or using it for some other purpose. But selling the land is complicated, according to Smith, because Lynnwood isn’t the sole owner of the golf course.

More than half of the land the course sits on is owned by Edmonds Community College and the state. So even if the City Council decides to sell the land, it’s unclear how the sale would work, or who would get the money.

Lynn Sordel is the head of Parks and Recreation for the city of Lynnwood. He used to work at golf courses, and he thinks the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course is one of the most beautiful spots in the city. But it’s not perfect. He says the course’s biggest problem is that the city hasn’t made any investments in it. He says the course lacks “key amenities like food and beverage, a driving range or a hitting area,” and “more golf carts.” Sordel contends that all of those amenities could bring in more money and help the course become a sustainable business.

Still, Sordel doesn’t think closing the golf course is the right solution. Instead, he wants the City Council to privatize some of the day-to-day operations of the course — particularly the promotions and marketing. He points out that the city of Lynnwood doesn’t use social media like Facebook or Twitter, and currently the only way to make reservations for a tee time is to call the golf course or go there in person. The private sector can offer conveniences like smartphone apps allowing people to reserve tee times, as well as “the bundling of very important specials at a golf course, food and beverage, golf carts, special promos, special offers, getting information to people quickly, without the bureaucratic red tape.”

Bureaucratic red tape may be one obstacle the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course is facing, but overall golf is faring better than in previous years. The Washington State Golf Association has found that rounds of golf played are up 13 percent from this time last year, thanks in part to this year’s relatively mild winter and spring. And for a Monday morning in mid-April, business looks brisk at the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course. Golfers are headed out to the green and hanging around in the Pro Shop.

Golfers Ed Bailey and Ray Fortney are chatting with each other in the parking lot, waiting for the rest of their foursome. Ed and Ray used to golf regularly at another municipal course — Ballinger Lake in Mountlake Terrace. Like Lynnwood, the Ballinger Lake Golf Course wasn’t making enough money to sustain itself so the Mountlake Terrace City Council decided to close the course and turn it into a passive park.

Ed and Ray hate the idea of the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course closing. They don’t know where else they could afford to golf regularly. In fact, Ed wishes the user fees at Lynnwood were cheaper. Ray doesn’t mention the user fees. Instead, he wants “a little clubhouse out here, where we can have a 19th hole, instead of sitting out in the cold.” But then, he remembers something. Monday is free hot dog day for the first 25 golfers. “Let’s go!” Ray says, heading towards the green.

The Lynnwood City Council will discuss options for the future of the Lynnwood Municipal Golf Course at a two-hour work session on Wednesday, April 17 at 7 p.m. The earliest the City Council will make a decision is at their business meeting on Monday, April 22.