PORT TOWNSEND — Golf lovers have until the end of September to pitch their best plans for getting Port Townsend’s 136-year-old links out of the financial rough and up to operational par.
Port Townsend officials on Friday released a formal request for proposal process as Gabriel Tonan’s lease to manage and operate the city-owned, nine-hole course is set to expire at year’s end.
“It’s been a dream for me to be able to run this little golf course for the past seven years,” said Tonan, who in 2013 took over an existing lease from Mike Early, with whom Tonan had worked as an assistant manager since the late 1990s.
“This golf course has been a big part of my life,” Tonan said. “I spent my youth playing here, I worked here as a kid, I met my wife here, and we got married on the seventh-hole tee box.”
But just as the sport in general and golf courses specifically have struggled to remain relevant and attract new blood over the past decade, the municipal club has seen declining revenue and with it an inability to maintain and improve its facilities and equipment.
Between 2015 and 2019, gross revenue fell from nearly $210,000 to just more than $130,000. These days, Tonan said he is “pretty much breaking even” as operating expenses are nearly equal to revenue.
That financial picture is comparable to most public-sector golf operations in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation, which analyzed the Port Townsend Golf Club’s facilities in 2018 and concluded in part that $1.2 million would be needed to bring the course to an “acceptable level of condition” and ensure its long-term viability.
Tonan, for his part, disputes that assessment, saying the foundation’s recommended improvements go beyond what’s truly needed to keep the course open and operational for its primary clientele: city-resident regulars and the occasional out-of-towner looking to get in a quick round.
“The only thing this property really needs is a new irrigation system,” he said, noting that the more than 30-year-old system began struggling four years ago and that, besides broken lines and damaged heads, he’s not exactly sure what’s wrong with it.
“Besides that, the course doesn’t need $8,000 for new cart paths; that’s not a necessity,” Tonan said. “And the building is fine. It might need a coat of paint, but it’s got a decent roof on it. I just don’t understand how the numbers they came up with would work for any municipal course. They make more sense for resort courses, not municipal courses.”
The City Council has made it clear that the city does not have the money to foot the bill for recommended improvements. However, its call for proposals does not mandate that applicants account for the full scope of those costs in their business plans, either.
“We know the course needs a lot of capital work and maintenance, and we know that a lot of people do love and do use the course,” Deputy Mayor David Faber said. “And that’s why we want to allow the golfing community the opportunity to present a plan to preserve the course.”
The council will review proposals in early October and interview potential vendors before moving on to contract negotiations. If a contract is signed, it would likely take effect Jan. 1.
If the council decides not to move forward with any of the proposals, it would open the conversation about the nearly 60-acre property’s future to other potential uses, which could include a limited version of the golf course coupled with other recreational uses, such as disc golf, pickleball or natural-area walking trails.
To weigh in on the future of the golf course, visit the city’s EngagePT page dedicated to the issue.
“If we don’t end up going forward with maintaining the use of the land as a golf course, the process is going to be robust, involved and extremely public,” Faber said. “It will take time, and we will have lots of public involvement.”
A community survey of 927 residents regarding use of the city’s parks and recreational facilities conducted last year found that about 10 percent of city residents use the golf course at least once per month and that it ranked as the lowest priority among parks for future taxpayer investment.
Trails, open space and an aquatic center ranked as the top priorities based on the survey.
Regardless, Tonan said the community risks losing its “little gem in the middle of the city” — not to mention an affordable way to relax, socialize and exercise outdoors for all ages — if someone doesn’t step up with a viable business plan to preserve the golf course.
“My heart hurts a little bit thinking about the possibilities of what this could be if not a golf course,” he said. “And I really do believe it is possible to grow this course and this club to be more profitable.”
Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 360-328-1222.