Golfers Mobilizing Against Development
I am seeing more and more that there is growing pressure on municipal golf courses to justify their use of land and their ongoing public investment. And I would contend that the golf industry, and golfers more specifically, are ill equipped to present a clear and compelling argument to mitigate this wave of public policy challenge over the economic, social and environmental value which golf has in a community. I am an associate member of the Golf Journalist Association of Canada and am working with colleagues to set an industry engagement event this year to address the complexity of issues addressing the future and sustainability of municipal golf in Canada. By municipal, I mean owned and operated by the city, town or municipality.
Concurrently, in a community enclave literally just south of where I live in north Burlington, I am witnessing in real time a community mobilization effort to address proposed development plans which directly impact Millcroft Golf Club by eliminating some current holes and reducing the size of others, essentially forcing Millcroft to redesign as an executive course. The course currently operates as a par 70, with three boxes ranging from 4688 to 5734 yards. It is one of 10 golf courses in Burlington, one of which is city owned and operated, another fully private. The course is approximately 30 years old, nicely matured within the Millcroft neighbourhood, meandering throughout the community. It is a public, daily fee facility with an active membership. I have had the pleasure of playing there on several occasions and quite like it. As with many courses, there are some holes I simply don’t prefer and while there are often houses set on both sides of most holes, I would argue the strengths of this course are its walkability, the convenience for many residents, and that it is an appropriate length to get youth and beginners to the game introduced to golf. My experiences at Millcroft Golf Club have been positive. That said, I have yet to write a review of this course on my golf blog, www.36aday.net The same holds true for many area courses, so I am not prejudiced against Millcroft or my experiences there.
Millcroft residents, understandably, are concerned (or angry, frustrated, confused…insert proper adjective here) about this proposed development. A letter has been sent to residents outlining the plans from developers who, in conjunction with the course, have preliminary plans to develop homes on part of the current golf course. I live close by in Alton Village (just north of Millcroft), so these plans affect me as a city resident. I literally just joined an active Facebook group (over 730 members) who are using this forum to share and exchange information and, essentially, mobilize themselves to address these plans. I have read quickly issues ranging from concerns over extensive intensification, property values dropping, the loss of green space, no longer backing onto a golf course, to name just a few. What I have not seen – consistently – was the voice of golfers. There were some, don’t get me wrong. But I was a little surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t be. After all, what are the foundations of arguments for golfers to mobilize itself and impact public policy? Perhaps Millcroft is an excellent example, in real time, of how golfers need to mobilize and help create clear and compelling policy arguments. The world of public policy is a complex one, predicated on evidence, relationships and mobilization of facts and other factors to inform decision making. There are no guarantees here. So, to the golfing community of Millcroft, and perhaps to golfers in cities and towns who are facing similar pressures around the future and sustainability of your local courses, here are some thoughts on how you can more effectively mobilize yourself to advocate for the future of your local course.
- Face your assumptions head on – Does this golf course matter in this community? Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But golfers need to be the one to answer this and engage with other community leaders. It is a good time for honest discussion, arguably the ideal time. It’s a good time to engage the cranky fish, using a Dr. Suess analogy (from the Cat in the Hat). Here’s a counter argument (not about the Millcroft situation mind you), “I think that there is an opportunity given the fact that we have land shortages in lots of our fast-growth cities and suburbs and we have an overabundance of golf courses,” says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the nonprofit research and education organization the Urban Land Institute. “I think you’re going to see in the future an even greater push to redevelop some of this land into other things.” But from here, assuming there’s interest and energy to advance this local conversation, than let’s explore steps for mobilization.
- Relationships Matter – introduce yourself to the head professional, general manager and/or owner of the course. While you’re at it, perhaps an introduction to a local counsellor or even the Mayor. Ask about the issues and explore their motivations, being sure to share your own story. Perhaps it is a course your kids learned to play on, and as one resident wrote, from there was able to obtain a scholarship for golf. You may learn insight on the complexity of the issues at hand. Listen to understand. You may have strong opinions and are upset and angry at the prospect of changes to your local course. There is a time and a place for that, and here, focus on the relationship and a sense of understanding.
- Research – In 2014 there was an extensive report done to examine the economic impact of golf in Canada. In 2019, a consortium of national golf organizations, including Golf Canada, the PGA of Canada and others are collaborating to develop a new report. https://golfcanada.ca/article/survey-economic-impact-of-golf-in-canada
This report, even the 2014 report, shows the significant impact which the game is having in Canada. Golf’s impact on the national economy in 2013 was a staggering $13.4B. The 2019 economic report is due out very soon. Baseline data is important but it is significant to drill down around the issues affecting the decisions for development. Is the course losing money? (the goal – how can the golf community collaborate with the course to make it more economically viable)? Are there environmental concerns (the goal – how can the course utilize better environmental practices to minimize its environmental impact?) Are there safety concerns? (what have other community courses done to safeguard residents (errant golf balls) and golfers (liabilities)? Is this driven by developmental $ (how can golfers effectively align with broader public policy decisions and weave in their value proposition as players to mitigate the fiscal arguments).
- Allies – who can you align with? Journalists? Municipal leaders? Golfers have an opportunity to create a balanced and compelling argument. My recommended approach here – no data without stories and no stories without data. Focus on the drivers of development and provide a relevant narrative. All the while, exploring who are the people/offices who can help advance your stories and interests. Don’t focus on social or health issues exclusively if this is an economic argument. But utilize allies to balance your focus as you mobilize to create an argument against development.
- Imitate – I would hazard a guess you’re not alone here. The challenges around sustainability or development are not new here to Millcroft. Where are their stories of success? Where have communities come up with solutions to build and strengthen the golf course and golf program in their community. Matt Ginella is a champion for a municipal 9-hole course, Winter Park, which is now a money maker in central Florida. Programs like Golf in Schools, led by Golf Canada is flourishing. Junior programs like at Northridge Municipal in Brantford, ON, is thriving and is helping sustain that municipal course. I don’t see why something similar couldn’t happen in Burlington and be based at Millcroft.
- Be purposeful – You’re not on the first tee; this is not a time to throw grass in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The golf community in Millcroft needs to coalesce and help community leaders mobilize a clear and concise argument against development. Once there is a plan, communicate that plan. Engage and re-engage. But for the golfing community, this is not the time to be quiet or invisible. Regardless of the primary and secondary drivers (quality of life, intensification, protecting green space, health, the golf experience) you need to be clear and be purposeful in your own mobilization efforts. The steps to effectively mobilize? Set objectives. Identify relevant activities (engagement; messages; medium). Evaluate.
This is hard work. It is not easy. And there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful. But I suspect it is important. There are reasons why we love the game of golf. This is an excellent opportunity to explore those and help advocate for its sustainability in this community. Because, make no mistake, in my opinion, this could be simply the first phase of a larger development plan.