OP Ed article, November 20 2010 Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post

To the editor:

Thank you for the Standard’s ongoing coverage of Lady Bird Johnson Golf Course.  The most recent article describes City Council’s current focus on the financial “losses” within the golf course and the park system generally.  I believe that focusing on accounting alone does not help us understand how Lady Bird works and what impact Lady Bird has on our town.

Parks are an important part of municipal life.  In fact, in troubled economic times, public parks become even more important both to those who use them and also to those who may not.  In Fredericksburg, our parks offer recreation, a reason to live here and a reason to visit here. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention/Visitors Bureau understand the importance of Lady Bird’s support both for the recruitment of businesses and the growth of our tourism industry.

The “tree issue” has occupied much of the public discourse concerning Lady Bird Johnson Golf Course over the past year.  The city and county have successfully concluded a fair and mutually acceptable agreement.  The County obtained an avigation easement which will allow Gillespie County Airport to meet the technological demands of the future.  The city gained just value for its property, and with the proceeds will be able to make the investments at Lady Bird required for future growth.

While we would wish the city to operate its services as efficiently as a successful business, we value city services differently than simply in dollars.  The city is not a business where success can be measured in profits and losses. In fact, all city services, by definition, lose money.  We do not necessarily look upon these services as being “subsidized” by our tax dollars.  As an example, just because we may no longer have children in school does not mean that we view our taxes as a subsidy to those families whose children are in school.  Schools are important.  So are parks.  As a civilized society, we make choices about what is important to us.

So, how do we value a golf course, or anything else for that matter, if we cannot do as businesses do:  measure how much money we make?  Instead of a money metric, we must consider the benefits of having the golf course, the detriment to our community should we not have it, and then decide what we are willing and able to pay for it.  We must consider the “why” and the “what“, before considering the “how“.  Why should we have a golf course?  What do we wish the golf course to do for residents, visitors and business?  Only after we can articulate the why and the what, can we then decide how we do it.

Several years ago, it became apparent to many of us that Lady Bird Johnson Golf Course had not achieved maximum value from the investments made by our community.  We formed Friends of Lady Bird (FOLB) to look “inside the ropes”. Through consultation with experts such as the United States Golf Association and others, we learned that ours is an exceptional golf course layout with great potential.  Working with the Chamber of Commerce and the CVB, we learned the importance of our golf course to the greater community in terms of business recruitment and the support of tourism.  Exploring the need for a sustainable junior golf program, FOLB has sponsored two public meetings with First Tee, the nationally recognized program for school age children.  Committed to improving enjoyment and access to Lady Bird Park as a whole, we have sponsored a public seminar on Live Oak Creek and are working with members of the Native Plant Society of Texas and the Fredericksburg Friends of Nature to further enhance Lady Bird’s natural beauty.  We have reached outside of the community, forging a close a relationship with the University Of Texas Graduate School Of Business whose students help us with surveys and marketing, actively pursuing partnerships with municipal golf associations in other communities within the Hill Country, and becoming more involved with the GCSSA, the professional organization concerned with golf course maintenance.  In myriad meetings working with city and golf course staff, we have tried to impart what we have learned, offering our help both as a resource and as an active participant.

Recently, we have been researching Lady Bird’s history.  The designs for both the original “old nine” in built in1967 and the more recent “new nine” completed in 1991 were performed by well known and highly respected golf course architects.  Unfortunately, because there has been no long term plan for the best use of these investments, these original designs and the golf course have been allowed to deteriorate.  Though there was once a sense of excellence, this sense of excellence seems to have been lost.  Our observations suggest there is currently minimal commitment to golf industry standards, equipment has become antiquated and inefficient, and investments in buildings and infrastructure appear to have been added with little connection to the past or plan for the future.

The pressing needs of other facets of city government have limited the resources available for a careful analysis of the golf course.  We have watched as our grand old Lady Bird no longer rises to her former promise.  We have lost our way, forgetting why we built her, what she is meant to be, and ultimately how to operate her properly.  By example, the short term decision to minimize service at Lady Bird Grill to save the equivalent of 2.5% of the annual budget follows a recently completed survey performed for FOLB by UTSA which demonstrates that the grill is the most important facet of the golf experience for the majority of visitors.  Surely the city should use such information as this when making any policy decision.

Recognizing the need to supplement city staff oversight of Lady Bird, City Council authorized FOLB to prepare a report on golf operations annually.  After a year of study and close involvement with golf course staff, we will present our first report this week.  In addition to a detailed analysis of current golf course operations, our report includes specific recommendations to improve Lady Bird.  Our first recommendation is to develop a vision and long term plan.  Once this plan is conceived and agreed upon by all the stakeholders, we can then produce accountability and performance standards which should allow professional management to operate Lady Bird within a sustainable budget for years to come.

Let’s bring together a group of talented, energetic, and creative citizens including those who play golf and others who also value the importance of Lady Bird to visitors, business and tourism. This Vision Committee, with expert help from such resources as the United States Golf Association, the Texas Parks Department, and the National Golf Foundation will define and articulate just what Lady Bird should be.  FOLB has also suggested that the city obtain a professional “outside” audit of the financial management, operations, and personnel at Lady Bird so that we may get a good handle on exactly where we are and what is going on.   With a vision of what we wish Lady Bird to be and this operational information, we will be able to develop a plan to make Lady Bird a continuing source of pride and sustenance for our city.

It is time to take a fresh look.

Leonard Bentch, President

FOLB

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