City staff wants to move forward with its plan to construct a new clubhouse at Westwood Golf Course, but the ensuing project — which has been in development for a number of years — will be downsized and likely include an open-air shelter to better accommodate tournaments.

The new clubhouse is estimated to cost about $1 million and is scheduled to appear in the city’s fiscal year 2023 CIP plan, Newton Community Services Director Brian Laube said during a Nov. 16 presentation with council members. Laube also wants to draw private investments to offset project costs.

Estimates may differ by the time the project actually takes shape.

The city has been pitching the idea of creating a new clubhouse for Westwood for a number of years. Oftentimes, city council members are supportive of the idea — noting the building’s age, deterioration and small space as evident downsides — but the cost is usually what sets staff back.

In 2016, an architectural and interior design firm proposed a $3 million plan, which was deemed too expensive. Three years later, the Newton Park Board was shown images of concept plans for a new clubhouse, which was thought of as “scaled-back” at the time.

Staff have been trying to actively improve and sustain Westwood for the past few years. Projections shared in Laube’s presentation outlined a possible route the city could take. If the golf course reports a 4 percent increase in rounds played in the next five years (which boosts revenue), the city facility could zero out its deficit.

One way staff could accomplish this feat is by constructing a new clubhouse and shelter. Laube proposed a simple, downsized and efficient building could be built, but it would not serve as a year-round wedding venue as was previously discussed at past city council and park board meetings.

“We don’t think that that’s needed and we don’t want to accrue the added construction costs and staffing,” Laube said. “We do not want to increase full-time staffing needs with this golf operation. The new clubhouse, we want to have an inviting, year-round sports bar atmosphere.”

To better host tournaments — which has remained a challenge for city staff because of space restrictions — Laube proposed the open-air shelter be built instead. Non-golfers would be able to rent the space, too. Staff envision an exterior seating area with a patio and fire pit.

Instead of a full-service restaurant, Westwood would partner with caterers.

Laube presented the Newton City Council with other options, too. Instead of building a new clubhouse, the city could spend $400,000 on maintenance upgrades, but it would not increase the functionality of the facility nor improve its curb appeal. Laube also said there would to be a noticeable increase in revenue.

Another option would be to spend the same amount on maintenance and then an extra $250,000 on remodeling. Again, Laube said this would not increase the functionality and would only give a minor bump in curb appeal. Although there could be a minimal increase in projected revenue.

Of course, the third option is to build a new clubhouse. More functionality. Better curb appeal. Very noticeable increase in revenue. At least, that’s what Laube says. Staff echo his sentiments, noting there would be increased bar sales, increased golf rounds and more room for new programs and other offerings.

Laube said a new facility could make way for concert events, weekly sand volleyball leagues, weekly bags leagues, food truck nights and off-season rentals of the clubhouse bar area. The building could also better serve summer golf camps, other youth programs and non-golf social events.

“This would be a way to help dig out of the operating budget deficit a lot more quickly,” Laube said.

Westwood has made changes to increase revenues but still loses money

Among other recommendations to the Newton City Council, Laube asked the fee schedule be left as is for the 2021 season and to allow staff more control on pricing specials. He also wants to increase marketing efforts — particularly in Jasper and eastern Polk Counties — and move forward with non-golf options.

Laube’s presentation was a summarization of information reviewed by community services staff, rather than an analysis conducted by a paid consultant. The nearly one-hour long presentation provided an overview of trends, conservative projections and recommendations based on staff’s familiarity with Westwood.

One week prior to the presentation being shared with council members, staff met with “local business people” to receive some feedback from the slideshow. Comments and suggestions were favorable, Laube said.

Laube reminded the city council that golf seasons can be impacted by weather. With about 441 courses across the state (both nine- and 18-hole), Iowa ranks third nationally in golf courses per capita, Laube said. To put it another way, there’s one golf course for every 6,908 people in Iowa.

“So what that means (is) we have a lot of competition in Iowa for golf,” Laube said, later noting that nine out of 10 golfers play at public courses in Iowa, 60 percent of Iowans play at least six different courses each year and 82 percent of Iowans play 30 or more rounds each year, according to online statistics.

The National Golf Foundation is projecting total rounds played nationwide for 2020 could be up as much as 15 percent compared to 2019, even with the COVID-19 seemingly keeping people in quarantine. Laube said city staff are even projecting Westwood to have a 10.1 percent increase of rounds played compared to 2019.

However, the business side of golf is a little more complex than that. National average expenses for public golf courses total $552,202. Laube’s presentation said about 49 percent of all courses were profitable 2019; about 24 percent broke even and the remaining 27 percent lost money that same year.

Westwood is in the latter category with about $344,402 in debt.

In a four-year average, Westwood’s expenses total $487,110. In 2016, Newton’s municipal golf course had reported 12,450 rounds played. By next year 16,783 rounds were played, followed by 12,781 in 2018; 15,211 in 2019; and an estimated 16,750 rounds in 2020.

Laube said all that averages out to about a 7 percent increase in the past four years. Despite the derecho and COVID-19 impacting Iowans (and even the course itself), golfers still spent a lot of time at Westwood this year. It’s also the second consecutive year the course has reported increased play.

Over the years, Westwood has tried to make changes to its business model to increase revenues, which have trended lower than the courses overall expenses. In 2018, Westwood added twilight special revisions, which resulted in a 100 percent increase in 2019. And a liquor license increased concessions profits by 23.6 percent.

Staff credit the lower prices, quality of course and convenient location for attracting a noticeable increase in Polk County guests in 2020.

Still, Laube looked at Westwood’s average revenue per rounds played. In FY16, the golf course was making $34.69 per round. Since then, the course has not gone above $30 per round ($25.42 in FY17, $29.92 in FY18 and $26.40 in FY19). Staff have not yet determined an amount for FY20.

Goals: eliminate golf fund deficit, make Westwood more than a golf course

Laube said staff’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the annual deficit of the golf budget, which he added was the reason he made the presentation for council. If the deficit continues to climb, the golf course cannot sustain itself. Staff also want to make Westwood more than just a golf course.

In order to meet these goals, staff want to increase the number of rounds played and expand its marketing efforts. About one year ago, the golf course tried to do the latter but was impeded by the construction of two bridges on Highway F48; one of which was located directly outside Westwood’s driveway.

“Then a global pandemic this year early on, and then we had a derecho — so some of our marketing efforts we really haven’t unleashed them or gone full speed due to the road closures and COVID,” Laube said. “We’re going to set that in effect this year and get on that this winter.”

Staff also want to decrease or hold steady on annual maintenance expenses and add new offerings for both the golfing and non-golfing public. Looking at the course itself, it’s one of two city parks (the other being Maytag Pool) with a “sizable revenue stream” and allows for the possibility to make money.

Events and tournaments could do just that. Laube said some can make up to $4,000 a day. But, again, part of what is putting events on hold is the clubhouse itself, which does not have the ideal space to accommodate average-sized tournaments. Laube himself even identified the clubhouse as a negative.

The clubhouse was originally built in the 1920s. Laube said it was not built to be a clubhouse. Several small additions have been made to the clubhouse, but the building has been mostly ignored over the years. Current cost estimates for repairs are more than $400,000.

To compare, the city built a new city hall in 1989, a library in 1991, the pool in 1996, an airport terminal in 2006 and Maytag Bowl in 2010. The clubhouse’s layout and functionality is not conducive for an effective and efficient golf clubhouse, Laube said. Apart from the course itself, there’s no curb appeal.

“(When people) golf out there — me included — they just, when they finish up, they don’t want to spend any time in that clubhouse,” Laube said. “It’s just not a very inviting atmosphere.”

Other negatives city staff identified was there was no other reason for non-golfers to visit Westwood apart from the adjacent dog park. Laube also drew attention to the public’s perception on the golf budget debt, which spawned from library budget discussions earlier this year.

Laube said the $344,402 deficit is a cumulative metric over seven years, rather than annual. Over the past four completed fiscal years, the average annual deficit of Westwood is $69,701. He also said when the library is being compared with the golf course, it is not an “apples to apples” comparison.

The city needs to make sure citizens realize Westwood is not a country club, Laube said. The community services director described the municipal golf course as an amenity to the community, much like the pool, Maytag Bowl, other parks, the library, bike trails and the airport.

One projection from city staff said that by 2026, the amount of rounds played would increase to 18,102 (based on 4 percent annual growth) if the golf course had new facilities in 2021, which Laube noted will not realistically happen. By then, Laube noted the golf course’s deficit could zero out.

It should be noted that capital expenses were not factored into this projection.

Laube also calculated it would be possible to have a 2.5 percent annual growth without new facilities, but it would be a more than 12-year climb for the golf course to get out of its deficit. The private support the city wanted to contribute to the new clubhouse is out there in the community, Laube added.

So perhaps it’s only a matter of time before someone takes a swing at it.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or [email protected]

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