David Reynolds: Fore!

Column by David Reynolds
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As those who play the game know all too well, golf is a four-letter word. But so is debt. Both seem to belong to the same club these days. And it doesn’t matter whether the club is a public one in Buena Vista or a private one in Lexington, the story is the same: More money is being lost by the pro shop than golf balls in the lake on the 10th hole.

Golf is in trouble. If you or your local government have never been seduced by the game, you probably don’t care. “Let them play tennis,” is your answer. But yellow tennis balls are no substitute for little white balls falling into only slightly larger holes on greens which are either too fast or too slow.

In spite of its self-inflected agony, there is no other game that holds you like golf – and then lets you go. Every year millions take up the game. And every year roughly the same number walk off into the rough and fulfill their promise to never swing a club again.

There are other numbers that plague golf. It requires big bucks to reshape the earth’s surface and create a golf course. The taxpayers of Buena Vista offered up over 9 million green pictures of George Washington (plus interest) to be paid back, in part, by those now attending Parry McCluer Middle School. All in order for a few to enjoy “a good walk spoiled.”

Still and all, this initial cost could have been far greater. There is no line item in the city’s budget for the vista part of Vista Links. Only for the links. The mountain backdrop is priceless. Thank goodness for small favors from above.

Then there are the operating and maintenance costs. Golf courses are like yachts – bottomless pits into which you throw money. In six short years Vista Links has poured $1,638,580 into 18 holes to keep them green. That’s $91,032 per hole! Or $258.08 for every BV man, woman and child. (If we include the city’s three grouches it is 13 cents less.)

However, we understand that maintenance costs are under control. Drive by and see for yourself. Maintenance employees have been laid off. And so have the paying public. Doesn’t the city know that golf is a game where you need to sweat the small stuff.

“The day of the exclusive private golf club is over,” a club manager told us. Many have gone under. They include clubs from Roanoke to Staunton. Who will be hit next?

We don’t know. But this much we do. We know that golf courses are today’s exclusive real estate developments. Unless you can sell houses at the tees, along the fairways or at the greens your investment is in trouble. It’s not the economy, stupid. Its location, location, location. So when an investment needs help the usual fix is an M&A. Yet neither a merger or an acquisition is being considered in our neck of the woods. And without better management and marketing the only option may be to close down and watch the grass grow.

How did a struggling small town, one that spends far more than any other jurisdiction in Virginia for parks and recreation ($324 per capita), get so foolish as to build an albatross on the necks of its taxpayers, at a time when basic needs are not being met?

“We have thrown up our hands,” a citizen told us. Maybe that’s the answer. Or could the answer be that the City of Buena Vista is simply ahead of the game. Not the game of golf — the new national game of going into debt. BV may just be ahead of the USA curve.

There was a recent election in Buena Vista. Candidates for mayor and city council were on the ballot. But there were no referendum questions. One therefore must assume that fiscal matters are not burning issues. The guess here is that if there was a golf course referendum prior to 2004 Vista Links would have never been built.

So the tango goes on. The people and their governments claim to take bold steps — without either willing to lock forces. Or is dodge ball being played, fun and games without anyone getting hurt? But people are being hurt. There are children to be educated and the less advantaged to be given a helping hand. Or could it be true that such higher objectives are being sacrificed to protect personal reputations and political parties? They do it in DC. Why not BV?

Meanwhile, we sip tea and drink coffee. And talk. Nothing is joined. The big alienation continues. We the people have become alienated from government – governments which were designed to be of the people. Closed golf courses for a city. Closed schools for a county. These are the early warning signs of alienation. What next? Unmanageable debt for a nation?

Madness.


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