Highland Park Golf Course Gets A Late Start To The Season

A man drives a riding lawnmower over a fairway at Highland Park Golf Course
At the end of June, a landscaping crew was trying to get Highland Park Golf Course ready for the season. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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This was the first full week of the year that Cleveland’s Highland Park Golf Course has been open to the public. The city had been scrambling to get it up and running. 

The Cleveland-owned property in Highland Hills is a mainstay of Northeast Ohio golf, but it’s been a financial drain, too.

At the end of June, the golf carts at Highland Park were roped off together near the entrance. A sign in red letters warned visitors that the course was closed.

Landscapers on riding mowers cut the grass on the fairway. They were trying to get nine of Highland’s 36 holes in working order.

“Spring came, growing season started, and a couple weeks ago, we were looking at three or four feet of growth across 300 acres of land,” Darnell Brown, Cleveland’s chief operating officer, said.

Several years ago, Brown said, the city’s two courses weren’t making money.

“We were probably subsidizing both golf courses, Seneca and Highland, somewhere in the area between $400,000 and $700,000 a year, which is significant,” he said.

Cleveland leased Seneca to the Metroparks. The city opened Highland to natural gas drilling and hired a contractor, M.A.N. Golf Ohio, to run the course.

But Cleveland terminated that contract this year, saying M.A.N. Golf Ohio had trouble keeping the lights on.

Company president Mark Nance said the financial trouble stemmed from a 2016 watershed project by the city and sewer district.

“The loss that was suffered during that construction was just too much to recover from,” Nance said. “During that summer, we lost over $200,000 in revenue.”

Talks With Metroparks About Highland’​s Future

This year, Cleveland has been trying to catch up. Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration slated an extra million dollars for Highland, signing a $763,500 contract with Davey Tree for maintenance.

That surprised Councilman Tony Brancatelli.

“We really don’t need to be in the golf course business,” Brancatelli said. “That’s not what we do well, and it just takes away from other resources. It’s time for us to cut bait and really find somebody who really does a great job, like the Metroparks.”

City officials have been talking with the Metroparks about taking over Highland, but no decision has been made yet. The park system already runs eight courses.

Brancatelli said even selling Highland should be on the table.

Cleveland might not want to part with the course completely.

Councilman Blaine Griffin said it’s an important part of the southeast side and surrounding suburbs. Highland offered African-American golfers a place to play when other courses were off limits, he said.

“It’s an everyday people’s golf course,” Griffin said. “It’s not your typical country club golf course. It’s a golf course where you may do anything from play with a person who’s a janitor and a person who is a Fortune 500 CEO.”

For about a decade, Highland hosted the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship for players from historically black colleges and universities.

Municipal Golf Courses Expand Amid Closures

Around the country, golf courses have been closing, after a building boom in the 1990s. In the last decade, the number of U.S. courses fell about 7 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The contraction has hit privately owned courses the hardest, while the number of government-owned courses has slowly grown, the NGF says.

“Supply has been contracting. Demand has been relatively flat,” said Jay Karen, the CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “When you look at the number of rounds played in America, it’s basically been a marginal change, maybe down a little bit, but generally flat.”

The owner’s association isn’t too happy to be competing with government-funded courses, according to a 2004 policy statement.  

Karen said more cities are hiring outside companies to run their courses for them.

“That’s been happening more and more and more, for a lot of good reasons,” he said. “One, it’s turning it, maybe, from an expense into a revenue situation.”

Cleveland’s not the only city in Northeast Ohio rethinking its golf business. In 2016, a task force floated the idea of selling Akron’s two courses.

Change is coming to private clubs, too. The Metroparks recently took over Astorhurst Country Club in Walton Hills, with plans to turn it into a park.

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