Fluctuating golf course usage and an outstanding loan have prompted the City of Red Deer to order a financial and operational review of the River Bend Golf and Recreation Area.
Pandemic closures interrupted the review, undertaken by Deloitte LLP on matters of sustainability, service provision and governance. To allow the study’s completion, city council opted on Wednesday to extend by a year its contract with the operator of the River Bend Golf and Recreation Area.
The society that’s run the course since it was first created in 1987, is now contracted by the city until Dec. 31, 2021 with a continuation of its 2020 fee for service of $289,501.
Shelley Gagnon, parks, recreation and culture manager for the city, said many changes have transformed both the golfing industry and the River Bend Golf and Recreational Area over the past decade.
The sport, highly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, became far less lucrative around the 2007 global financial crisis and has since “ebbed and flowed.”
In recent years, River Bend’s ski trails and Discovery Canyon water park, which the society also maintains, have seen major improvements.
Gagnon said the city felt it was, therefore, timely to do a service provision and operations review. “It could inform our future agreement negotiations” with the society.
River Bend’s operating society has struggled for more than a decade to make re-payments to the city on a loan that was taken out in 2004. The City provided nearly $1.7 million for a clubhouse expansion, including banquet facility and cart storage areas, to be paid back over 25 years.
While the Society repaid about $125,000 of this loan, financial challenges that started in 2008 meant most subsequently payments have been deferred. Gagnon said the outstanding balance is still $1.544 million.
She noted River Bend’s golfing operations had seen some better years over the past decade but also some lean ones resulting from Alberta’s stalled economy, poor weather, and road construction that made getting to the course more difficult.
The good news is that Red Deer-area golfers have been flocking to the course this spring after its re-opening during the pandemic.
Gagnon said, “We saw that people were taking an interest in doing things they hadn’t been able to do in a while.”
Ray Lewchuk, chair of the operating society, said it’s been as busy on some days at River Bend Golf Course “as it’s been since 2005… We’ve had over 350 people on the course on a couple of days…”
While May’s numbers are about the same as last year that’s only because the course didn’t open until May 6. Lewchuk said by June 17, the golf course had already seen 80 per cent of the business it had for all of June 2020.
Whether this pent-up demand for the no-contact sport will fade after pandemic measures are loosened “and we’re not the only act in town,” remains to be seen, said Lewchuk.
But he’s optimistic about the future because golfing demographics are getting younger. Lewchuk noted the number of junior passholders on the course has tripled from last year.