Harding Park is a city gold mine, not a drain

In recent weeks, the mayor and his allies on the Board of Supervisors have been pushing “privatizing” Harding Park. Harding, they say, cost $23.6 million to rebuild, is operating at a loss and has debt to repay — so it should now be turned over to an outside operator. Nothing could be further from the truth!

As the originator and driving force behind the restoration of Harding, I believed that because of its physical uniqueness, it could become a recreational treasure for San Franciscans, and a profit-yielding gold mine for The City’s coffers and our local businesses. Today it is one of the finest and most profitable municipal courses in the country.

On April 25, 2002, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved my legislation that Mayor Willie Brown signed into law. It contained the following guidelines: Harding was to be completely renovated and environmentally sensitive. Green fees were to be kept at a minimum, thereby allowing golf to remain affordable and accessible. The course was not to be privatized, so revenue could go directly to The City.

Also, a special “golf fund” was to be established to capture golf course revenues that would be used to maintain all other city-run courses, with any excesses going to neighborhood parks. A comprehensive youth golf program was to be established. Tournaments and tours were to net The City at least $1 million each after city expenses, and local businesses could enjoy $50 million to $80 million in economic benefits per tournament.

To fund the rebuild, we utilized $13.1 million in state grants intended for neighborhood parks. My colleagues soon realized that if those funds were divided among the 11 supervisorial districts, a one-time infusion of approximately $1.1 million per district paled in comparison to sharing in perpetuity the profits that a properly administered “golf fund” could provide. Cost overruns due to inefficiencies and inclement weather amounted to $2.9 million from the 2002-2003 Recreation and Park budget for a total cost of $16 million. We all assumed that there would be honest and transparent administration of the golf fund, once the rebuild was completed.

Annual projected revenues were based upon green fees for S.F. residents being set at a maximum of $28 and nonresidents at a maximum of $88. Using the historic yearly average of 77,650 rounds of golf, Harding would yield at least $3 million per year. After maintenance costs, The City golf fund has netted at least $6.5 million to $9 million over six years as predicted.

In addition to the revenue stream, we got the Professional Golfers Association make Harding Park the West Coast home of the PGA Tour Championships — for payment to The City of a minimum of $1 million plus 50 percent of the net revenues for each event. Tours were to be held every three years from Jan. 1, 2006, through Jan. 1, 2015, with options for three additional nine-year terms. (This was a potential profit to The City of some $31 million, or double the cost to rebuild Harding.)

When I left office in 2004, the fun and games began. Green fees were jacked up to $46-$59 for residents and $135-$155 for nonresidents. Without taking into account profits from the tours and other charges, something is not adding up here. Even simple math will show that there is just no way Harding could be running at a loss.

The current administration is diverting course revenues and exploiting the golf fund to the detriment of San Francisco taxpayers. They are using that money for purposes other than as intended in the guidelines of the approved
legislation.

By portraying Harding as running an operating loss, this administration can justify its attempt to “privatize” its operation. Privatization is useful when efficiencies can be employed that a municipality cannot, in order to benefit the common good. In the case of this mayor and his cronies, “privatization” means turning the operation of Harding over to their special-interest political donors so that they can reap the profits instead of The City.

Tony Hall was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2000 to 2004.

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