Business As Usual At Municipal Golf Courses










Business As Usual For City Of London Golf
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor,

Photo: Jeffrey Reed/

The City of London today clarified the state of its municipal golf system, as the focus is again on the closing of River Road Golf Club.

According to the City, River Road will remain open as per usual during the 2020 golf season – as will each of the existing muni tracks.

Consulting firm KPMG recently tabled a City-commissioned report which offered four solutions to what it identified as a River Road deficit of more than $70,000 in 2018:

Option 1 – Discontinue operations at River Road GC
Option 2 – Discontinue operations at River Road and the Quarry Course at Fanshawe GC
Option 3 – Discontinue operations at River Road and the Hickory 9 layout at Thames Valley GC
Option 4 – Discontinue operations at River Road, Quarry, and Hickory

Earlier, London City Council dismissed all but Option 1.

“At last night’s meeting, Council directed staff to do further work to explore operations at River Road Golf Course and present more detailed options,” read an email from the City this afternoon. “There were recommendations related to other golf courses, but Council didn’t approve these.

“Over the next few months, staff will do work to report back with additional information to Council. We expect this report will come back in September, and it will present a number of options for the future of River Road. There will be formal opportunities for input through a Public Participation Meeting (PPM). In the meantime, if you would like to provide comment on this review, you can send it through”

After last night’s 14-0 vote to further examine River Road’s future, options now include: reducing River Road to a nine- or 12-hole offering; selling or leasing the land; or morphing the course into parkland/trails.

Junior golfers at Fanshawe GC’s traditional layout. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/

According to Jon-Paul McGonigle, a manager with the City’s Parks and Recreation division, “There was no public consultation as part of the KPMG process, and you know as usual in the public service that most certainly is very important to us.”

This isn’t the first time River Road has been under the microscope. Opened in 1992 on 50 hectares of land adjacent to a former landfill site, the 18-hole course faced closure when in 2011 City staff recommended they shut the doors on the muni system’s weak link. But muni golf patrons were outraged, and their wishes won out – for the time being.

The new KPMG study said the track has seen 37.5 per cent less rounds played since 2012. Since that time, the City courses have operated under a new revenue-sharing business model. And for years, the City has run the courses with $0 budgets under a system that has seen the courses pay for their own operations. During the 1990s and early-2000s, the trio of courses pumped about $1 million annually into city coffers.

The City operates 90 holes of golf – 45 holes at Fanshawe GC, including the Traditional layout and Parkside 9 accessible course; 27 at Thames Valley; and 18 at River Road.

Studies Nothing New

The most often quoted local golf study stems from two sources. A 1991 City of London study, conducted by Canadian Golf Marketing, stated there were 81,000 golfers in London, 29,000 of whom were recreational golfers, and the balance avid golfers. That study reported, in most other municipalities, those numbers were reversed. The 1991 study indicated, more than 1,250,000 rounds of golf were played each year at London and area’s 20 courses.

Today, there are 55 courses in London and Middlesex-Elgin-Oxford counties, and more than 100 in Southwestern Ontario.

Mike Olizarevitch, retired long-time head golf pro at Fanshawe Golf Club, now supervising turf maintenance at Dorchester Golf Club, produced a report for the City in 2003 indicating there were enough golf courses in and around London to support a population of 1,050,000 – more than three times London’s then population of about 330,000. The National Golf Foundation indicates, in order to sustain a viable trade, one golf course should be built for every 25,000 people.

The City’s golf courses conducted another survey in 1999 which drew about 400 responses. Developed in June ’99 by UnderPar Consulting Group at the Richard Ivey School of Business, the survey was shaped with assistance from Bob Neskas, then City of London Manager of Recreation Services and Attractions; and the City’s three head golf pros – Olizarevitch, Andy Shaw of River Road (now owner at Dorchester); and Fred Kern, who was the long-time pro at Thames Valley Golf Club. Recently-retired City of London supervisor of golf operations, John Cowie, also had a hand in teeing up that survey.

Amongst the findings of that survey: golfers rated enjoyment of their golf experience very highly, but they said they were not always satisfied with the pace of play (some things never change).

Ed. Note: The 2020 London & Area Golf Survey is now open. It takes 10 minutes to complete. All data will be shared with the local golf industry. Click here to go to the survey.

According to Steve Bennett, who since 2010 has managed the muni golf courses, local golfers are now understanding that they may purchase a municipal golf membership – not just at membership at, for example, Thames Valley GC.

Steve Bennett with the Greater London Mini Tour trophy at Thames Valley GC. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/

“Working for the City is like giving a golf lesson: it’s about communicating well,” Bennett explained.

“When I first came here, people would say, for example, ‘I am a member of Thames Valley Golf Club.’ So we had to change their philosophy and say, no, you are a member of the City of London municipal golf course system. You can play here, but you can also play at Fanshawe Golf Club and River Road. Now people have bought into that.”

The City is also planning to turn the Thames Valley GC clubhouse into a year-round community centre. The creation of accessible washrooms is also in the plans for Thames Valley, as part of the City’s $51.5-million wish list for parks and recreation upgrades and additions.

But with the City again reviewing the life of River Road, and with the golf industry struggling – growth is stagnant and most demographics have not seen a boost in activity, according to recent studies from governing golf bodies – this could be the end of River Road.

It would be a shame, however, since the muni system has long been a template which other Canadian municipalities have looked upon as a model operation. But cities across North America are now rethinking their golf operations, at a time when lack of time rather than lack of money is the biggest detriment to growing the game.

This time around, it appears if River Road is to remain open, it’s going to need an ace in extra holes.


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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office established 1989.