Public Golf as a Political Hot Potato
Toronto Mayoral candidate, Jennifer Keesmaat’s recently tweeted about transforming lands currently used for three municipal golf courses into space more accessible for the public.
There is so much more we can do with this land. Highest and best use of public land means opening it up to more uses by more people, and that’s what I’m proposing here. Read more: https://t.co/AooBFNcVSu #Keesmaat4Mayor #topoli
— Jennifer Keesmaat (@jen_keesmaat) October 8, 2018
The golfing community was quick to rally and advocate for the benefits of local, accessible and affordable public golf. Professionals like Ian Leggett and journalists like Rick Young at SCOREGolf responded with sharp criticism of Ms. Keesmaat’s proposal. Rick went so far as to post a blog on SCOREGolf with a detailed response.
Toronto mayoral candidate @jen_keesmaat wants to close city owned/operated Don Valley, Scarlett Woods & Dentonia Park golf courses & repurpose them.
— Rick Young (@YoungerGolf) October 10, 2018
While not entirely different than the current battle which community residents in Oakville have with ClubLink around a possible sale of Glen Abbey for development purposes, these two speak of a growing trend, especially in Southern Ontario, about pressure on land use. These are only two examples and I suspect that this issue will only grow over time where accountability for community assets, a lack of clarity around the value which golf brings to communities, and a need for the golf industry to better mobilize its knowledge about the economic, social, environmental and health benefits of the game help alleviate the political pressures demonstrated by Ms. Keesmaat in Toronto.
Rick Young capably drilled down into the specifics of Ms. Keesmaat’s arguments around repurposing courses for residents of Toronto. I’ll look at this issue at a broader, systems-level and offer opinions on how this issue can be addressed when it comes to the forefront again (and make no mistake, it will).
- An economic bottom line
Ian Leggett, in one of his Twitter responses to Ms. Keesmaat’s proposal, outlined a need for proper CPGA management of Toronto courses to help make them profitable. What are other jurisdictions doing around the management of their municipal courses? My assumption is managing municipal golf assets is a responsibility which the golf industry would like to be a greater part of. As for hard numbers, a 2014 study around the economic impact of golf in Canada shows startling (and impressive) numbers around the direct contribution of golf in the Canadian economy. http://canadagolfs.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/SNG-Golf-2014-Executive-Summary-FINAL-Report-JUNE-2_ENG.pdf I acknowledge my bias being pro-golf but am open to the idea of a policy discussion on this issue versus a policy decision which, in Toronto’s case, seems confusing and unwarranted. Evidence-informed decision making is at the crux of my argument here. Perhaps Ms. Keesmaat, if she has not done so already, should speak to leadership in Golf in Canada and Toronto, to gain insight on the economic bottom line that participation in golf has for the country, which extends beyond the ledger sheet for the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation Department.
- How effective is the golf industry in telling its story around the value and benefits of the game?
While I am quite comfortable bring critical of Ms. Keesmaat’s plan, it is both concerning and problematic that politicians still view golf as an elitist sport which does not foster or promote participation across the entire community. Perhaps we need to engage political leaders in programs like Golf in Schools and She Swings She Scores (to name but two examples). Engaging directly with the youth can help demonstrate the values in which the game instills for youth; the First Tee program in the United States is an excellent example with their core values marketed to parents, advertisers, partners and the youth themselves. My point with all this is that good news stories, local fundraisers, youth development and local leadership and successes need to be more effectively mobilized. It is here that the golf industry needs to be more effective in engaging political interests in demonstrating the value and benefits of the game to the community and to residents.
- What are the risks from a lack of convenient and affordable golf courses for a municipality?
My first golf experiences were at a privately owned 9-hole course on the border of Burlington and Oakville. It has long closed down, with townhouse developments now in place. My formative experience learning and playing the game were at Chedoke in Hamilton where there are two municipally owned and operated courses. The proposal, as identified from Ms. Keesmaat, runs the risk of eliminating access to the game for many Toronto residents. I am curious to know, similar to the positive effect from the game, what are the negative effects when golf is not accessible to a community? And by that I mean affordable and within reasonable access. I acknowledge affordability is contextual, but the removal of municipal run courses leaves interested players scrambling for Toronto-area privately run public courses which are generally more expensive and harder to access. While we need to look into and more effectively communicate the positive benefits of the game in our communities, we also need to explore the risks of limited/no access.
In closing, to me it’s all about impact. A holistic look at the game is needed – no data without stories and no stories without data. I feel the value and benefits from golf are lost on people with long-held views that golf is elitist, expensive and lacking any meaningful engagement with community. I fear the policy position as presented by Ms. Keesmaat in Toronto is one which others will soon share – whether it is seeking to garner quick political gain, or a rooted sense that golf is not good for the community or the municipal bottom line. Regardless, there is a responsibility to engage in these political debates but in doing so we need to be armed with facts. These municipal assets hold great value and need a strategy for their stewardship for the benefits of all community members.