Portland drops cash into Riverside Golf Course improvements to prove it’s on a par with private links

First Tee of Maine golf coach Phil Gignac works with Dana Hinchliffe, 13, on his swing at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday morning.
First Tee of Maine golf coach Phil Gignac works with Dana Hinchliffe, 13, on his swing at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday morning. Buy Photo
First Tee of Maine golf coach Phil Gignac helps young duffers with their swings at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday morning.
First Tee of Maine golf coach Phil Gignac helps young duffers with their swings at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday morning. Buy Photo
Young golfers Dana Hinchcliffe, 13, (left) and Kevin Ly, 13, use ribbons and sticks to hone their drive skills at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday.
Young golfers Dana Hinchcliffe, 13, (left) and Kevin Ly, 13, use ribbons and sticks to hone their drive skills at the grand opening of the South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday. Buy Photo
Kevin Ly, 13, (left) and Dana Hinchliffe, 13, practice chipping at the grand opening of the new South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday.
Kevin Ly, 13, (left) and Dana Hinchliffe, 13, practice chipping at the grand opening of the new South Course Clubhouse at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland Friday. Buy Photo
Posted July 19, 2013, at 4:15 p.m.
Last modified July 19, 2013, at 5:43 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Managers of Portland’s Riverside Golf Course have a message for city area golfers: Take us back.

“Give us a second chance,” said Ryan Scott, course manager, before a Friday morning event at the course.

City officials during the past half year have constructed a compelling case for duffers and long drivers to come rushing back into Riverside’s embrace. The facility in recent years had become financially unreliable — often running at a deficit — and saw membership drop off as better capitalized private courses around southern Maine emerged to offer more attractive fairways.

But with $573,000 in recently completed or planned capital improvements at Riverside, a new club professional and partnerships with some of the nearby courses previously seen as competitors, the city of Portland has made it clear it wants to work on its golf game.

“We’ve had ups and downs,” Scott said. “We dropped a lot of members a few years back. I don’t know why — whether it was the recession or competition from other courses. But people are coming back now. They’re seeing the investments the city is making.”

Scott said the highest membership total at the course in recent memory was a roster of nearly 800 members in 2002-2003. By last year, that membership was down to about 400, but with some high-profile additions to the facility so far in 2013, Riverside has reversed the trend and is beginning to creep back up. Scott said the course has added 25 new members this year, up to 425.

“Ryan and I want people to come back to Riverside,” said Portland Recreation Director Sally DeLuca. “So many people grew up here and then moved on to other courses. We want them to come back home.”

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said a Friday morning ribbon cutting for a new $175,000 South Course Clubhouse represented “the big visual that captured all the work that has been put into this.”

But the clubhouse — complete with a new pro shop, restrooms and a function room — isn’t the only upgrade at Riverside.

Using capital improvement funds, the city also spent $50,000 on locker rooms and bathroom improvements at the existing North Course Clubhouse. The city has lined up $218,000 in the next fiscal year for continued work at the North Course building for restaurant and pro shop upgrades and a banquet space, as well as another $105,000 for new mowers to more effectively keep the greens groomed.

Using in-house expertise and previous trade agreements with city technology partners, Riverside also went high-tech in 2013 with a new point-of-sale system, computers and a free app for golfers’ mobile devices, through which people can sign up for tee times, post scores to the leader board and even make reservations at the course restaurant.

Riverside managers also hired a PGA veteran — Nick Packard — to come on-board as the course professional in May, filling what had in recent years been a vacant position and restoring valuable gravitas in the southern Maine golf community.

Speaking of that community, city officials reached out to managers of the prestigious Cumberland course Val Halla, Old Orchard Beach-based Dunegrass and Nonesuch in Scarborough to form the Greater Portland Golf Association, creating multi-course passes for golfers looking to explore multiple environments.

“When we first built Riverside, it was one of the only golf courses available,” DeLuca said. “Now there are so many more options for golfers.”

The Riverside Golf Course was opened in 1932 and by 1937 was a full 18-hole course. In the following decades the nine-hole South Course was added, as well as a three-hole practice course used by learners and youth groups like The First Tee of Maine.

But by 2012, Riverside was at a crossroads. Elected city leaders, troubled by erratic financial returns produced by the course, openly discussed pulling Portland out of the golf business and potentially turning the course over to a private firm for management.

“The big question the City Council was coming back to staff with was, ‘There seems to be a big fluctuation between running in the red and running in the black — can we study this and see how this can really be stabilized?’” recalled Clegg.

Annual revenues at the course reportedly dropped from about $1 million annually in 2008 to just more than $860,000 in 2011. According to The Forecaster, a tussle over unpaid rent between the city and private manager of Riverside’s North Course restaurant two years ago brought public attention to Riverside’s plight — thanks in part to rent and expense money Portland was never ultimately paid, the course was about $80,000 in the red in 2011.

The city subsequently commissioned a study by National Golf Foundation Consulting, Inc., which in December 2012 reported back with a slate of recommendations, many of which guided the changes made or planned thus far. Significantly, Clegg said, the foundation advocated that the course be moved from the city’s enterprise accounts — designated for city programs that should generate enough revenue to pay for their own expenses — to Portland’s general fund.

The council during its spring budget deliberations did that, Clegg said, choosing to consider Riverside more like a public recreation amenity — akin to city parks and pools — than a business venture. That eliminated expectations that Riverside would be run at a profit, but city leaders didn’t immediately write off the course as an acceptable money pit, either.

DeLuca said she, Scott and others took the consultants’ recommendations to heart and implemented aggressive plans to win back members. So far, the effort is working.

“We’re so committed to growing this game here,” DeLuca said. “We still want to have a facility that breaks even, and that takes some investment. People are coming back because they’re seeing the investment from the city.”

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