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Commentary: Closing Seattle’s public golf courses would hurt underserved demographic the most

Today was a perfect day to enjoy Discovery Park in Seattle: 534 acres of beautiful green space, completely free to the public. Or Green Lake Park or the Japanese Garden. Gasworks Park or Golden Gardens. Magnuson Park or the Kubota Garden.

In fact, I hope everyone had a chance to enjoy one of 412 sites listed under Parks and Recreation areas of the City of Seattle’s website – including hiking trails, biking trails, dog parks, playgrounds and skate parks today.

And now, I think they should close every single one of them. This city is in an affordable housing crisis. Most of these public spaces are completely free to enjoy, in turn draining the city of resources and revenue to maintain them. The city could make hundreds of millions, if not billions, selling all this land to developers, creating desperately needed homes.

People don’t need to hike. To bike. To take their dogs to an off-leash park. To take their kids to a playground. It’s completely unnecessary. Right? Did I sell it?

Because what I just said is as ridiculous a notion as this city commissioning a $104,000 study, specifically targeting the future of 3 1/2 municipal golf courses: Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, West Seattle, and Interbay.

Let’s start by dispelling some knee-jerk reactions, especially ones from the “nobody plays golf anymore” crowd. The study showed that over the past decade, an average of more than 238,000 people played golf every single year at these specific courses. That’s an average of 163 players per day, per course, but that’s based on a year of 365 days of golf-able weather! Go out to any of these public courses or driving ranges on a sunny day, and they’re absolutely packed. In fact, the high volume of traffic on those days actually acts as a deterrent to some golfers in the area.

Let’s also dispel the notion of “elitism." The cheapest way to play golf anywhere in this area is to play a Seattle municipal course.

Jefferson Park and Jackson Park also serve as headquarters for The First Tee of Greater Seattle, which has taught life skills and golf to more than 100,000 children since 2004. According to the organization, 50 percent of those kids are non-Caucasian, 35 percent are girls, and 70 percent of participants receive financial assistance to take part in the program – a program that also pays this city $60,000 every year in rent and course access fees.

Take away any of these courses, and you’re eliminating any access for a demographic this city should be supporting the most. If we’re left with just country clubs with exorbitant membership fees? THAT’S what would support the elitist stigma which is currently untrue.

(And a side-note: how is Jefferson Park, which opened more than a hundred years ago, where legendary golfer Fred Couples grew up – NOT a historical landmark, when the KeyArena roof is, along with more than 400 other individual sites in this city?)

The bottom line is this: According to the study, in 2017, these public courses actually made more in revenue than expenses, if you don’t count a 5 percent contribution to the city’s Park Fund. Let’s say that again: Five percent of all revenue from this city’s courses go to a Park Fund that helps pay for all the other free public spaces in this city. And now you’re going to count that against the golf courses themselves?

Then there’s my favorite part of this study: That a major increase in course expenses – a 34 percent increase in concessionaire personnel expenses, in fact – are “attributable to the impact of the City of Seattle’s new minimum wage law under which the concessionaire is increasing wages to meet the requirement to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2020.”

To be clear, I’m not against raising minimum wage – but when the city looks at these courses as being in the red, part of that reason is directly attributable to its OWN CHANGE IN POLICY - its own decision to raise the minimum wage, and then holding it against the courses themselves.

In a statement to the Seattle Times, Mayor Jenny Durkan defended the study, saying “I think it’s time to take the next step and do an analysis of other ways we can meet the demands of people who want to be outdoors and golfing, and what other functions those golf courses might do for the city of Seattle and the city in the future.”

To be clear, nothing has been decided yet. But to even broach the notion should cause concern. Because we’ve seen ideas be floated before as part of an agenda that, before you know it, has held a few scarcely-advertised community meetings and all of a sudden is an actual piece of legislation sitting in front of the city council.

According to the Seattle Times, Portland has six municipal golf courses. Spokane has five. Seattle – bigger than both cities – has just 3.5.

In the end, if you get rid of any of them, they’re gone forever. You won’t get them back. And you’re doing a major disservice to families and to children especially, depriving opportunities for an underserved demographic the most.

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