A few months back we told you about Indian Wells Golf Resort’s highly popular Shots in the Night, which has added excitement and a new revenue stream to a premier public golf facility constrained by the highly seasonal nature of visitation and golf demand in the Coachella Valley of California.
Helena, Montana, and Indian Wells are as dissimilar in terms of climate, geography and culture as two cities can be. Likewise, the Indian Wells Golf Resort and Helena’s 18-hole Bill Roberts Golf Course are starkly different. Each, however, has invested in creative ways to engage the local non-golfing community and establish new revenue sources.
For Montana’s capital city, a short golf season meant it was imperative that golf course management and city staff find a new, reliable source of revenue during the months its course was closed.
The Bill Roberts Municipal Golf Course, which opened as a nine-hole layout in 1925 and expanded to 18 holes in 1976, offers an enjoyable and affordable golf experience in a beautiful setting on the north side of Helena. The course averages around 45,000 annual rounds-played — placing it among the best performers in the Mountain Region — and generates a net operating income of about ±$200,000 per year. Still, the facility had some constraints beyond the relatively short golf season that put a ceiling on revenues. The most significant were the substandard pro shop and clubhouse buildings that weren’t conducive to merchandise and food & beverage demand, and made Bill Roberts less competitive for golf outings and other events.
In 2016, Helena faced an expenditure of more than $130,000 after the city determined the facility’s aging buildings weren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and needed to improve accessibility. Additional investment was needed for new roofs and other deficiencies. This seeming obstacle turned out to be an opportunity to explore the re-imagination of BRGC’s clubhouse with the goal of enhancing year-round revenue generation and engaging more segments of the Helena community.
During the prior six years, PGA Golf Professional and Golf Course Manager Scott Longenecker installed a simulator in the tight confines of the pro shop building during the winter season and enjoyed growing success at a time when the facility would normally have been completely closed. Between lessons, league play (~95% of recreational use), club-fittings, and open play, the overall utilization rate of the simulator was about 85%. In addition to generating direct revenue of about $20,000, the simulator resulted in increased merchandise, lesson and beverage revenues, while adding only minimally to staffing costs.
In developing a conceptual idea for the new clubhouse, the city’s Parks & Recreation department worked with Longenecker and other city staff to envision a sports bar-themed destination facility that would have broad appeal for multiple user groups in the Helena area. In addition to a revamped bar & grill area, the proposed building would include an expanded pro shop, multiple golf simulators and gaming machines, state-of-the-art big screen televisions, sports-themed memorabilia, and corporate meeting room. Backers of the project believed that a new multi-use destination facility would allow BRGC to thrive for twelve months instead of the typical seven, and be the best bet to position BRGC for long-term sustainability.
The city of Helena brought in NGF Consulting to conduct an independent third party operations review and feasibility study as part of its due diligence. NGF stakeholder surveys showed strong support for a new clubhouse. Provided a description of the proposed program, 6 in 10 respondents indicated they would patronize BRGC more often with the new building, and 1 in 5 said they would use the facility “much more often.” A financial model was created to analyze the viability of the proposed program for the new building, including the projected financial return on investment, which would be a key part of Bill Roberts’ $3 million in improvements for the subsequent 10 years.
NGF modeled the expected effect on relevant revenue centers and projected incremental stabilized net revenues, after cost of sales and other expenses, to be $162,000. This was sufficient to justify a building expenditure of about $2.5 million, based on the 20-year financing terms provided by the city. The fact that the city had to address the ADA issues and replace the roofs made the decision to fund the new building an easy one, and the City Commission approved a 20-year, $2.1 million bank loan for the project.
Construction began in late 2017, and the remodeled clubhouse opened in May 2018.
The rest of the building, including Muni’s Sports Grille, was completed in the Fall. The naming of the new venue has an interesting back story. For years, some in the city wanted to shy away from the word “municipal” in the name of the golf course, or even change the name entirely. During the planning sessions for the clubhouse, the thinking evolved 180 degrees to the idea of embracing the association between the golf course and its clubhouse to municipal golf. In other words, the fact that Bill Roberts was a municipal facility to be enjoyed by all citizens was a badge of honor, and not something to shy away from.
The new building includes a grill room with a 120-person capacity, a separate quiet dining area that seats about 24, a corporate meeting room, three Full Swing simulators (Wii is hooked up to one, Xbox to another), three video poker gaming machines, state-of-the-art televisions (including one 80-inch set), and a fireplace. Programming has included over 100 teams for the winter simulator league, multiple fantasy football leagues, and a new beginner 3-person scramble simulator league that is positioned as a “relaxed pace, fun and simple format” on-boarding program to rid non-golfers of the anxiety of learning golf out on the course. Bill Roberts Golf Course also hosted a cross country ski race that had more than 400 participants.
Longenecker reports strong early success for the re-imagined clubhouse. In addition to very high utilization of the simulators, there has been strong demand for meeting space, and non-golf related food & beverage sales have increased to about 50% of the total since the facility opened. That’s up from “virtually nothing” when the restaurant was open only during the golf season. Now, everyone from neighborhood residents to the cross-country skiers who frequent the golf course during winter have a place to go for a meal or beverage.
The revamped pro shop has more room for display and storage, offers improved sight-lines to the golf course and is much more inviting. Longenecker reports a “big uptick in club sales and club fitting.”
Amy Teegarden, who retired as Helena’s Director of Parks & Recreation at the end of 2018, was instrumental in bringing the new building to fruition and recently reflected on the process.
“Learning that we needed to invest more than $100,000 to make our existing building ADA-compliant – in addition to replacing the roofs — was really the pivot point for us in terms of conceiving the new clubhouse,” she said. “From the beginning, it was a very thoughtful, well-planned process that culminated in the clubhouse renovation/expansion and the opening of Muni’s.
“All the major stakeholders – city and golf course staff, the Golf Advisory Board and the City Commission – worked closely together to create a vision for what we wanted the new building to be: a community hub where there was something for everyone, golfers and non-golfers alike. The final stage in the feasibility process was obtaining an independent expert’s opinion on the viability of what we were planning. We chose National Golf Foundation Consulting and were very pleased with the thoroughness and professionalism of their analysis. Their expertise was invaluable as we finalized the conceptual program and financial projections for presentation to the commissioners.”
For many golf courses in northern climates whose revenues are constrained by the season, finding a way to generate winter revenues and broaden the appeal of the golf facility to the non-golfing community can be a winning formula.
In the case of Bill Roberts Municipal Golf Course in Helena, the new clubhouse building has been a big early success and should help ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the golf operation – long after the time the capital investment is paid off.
Ed is the NGF's Director of Consulting Services and has been with the organization since 2000. He is one of the industry's foremost experts in facility operations and municipal golf, having performed nearly 200 operations reviews, feasibility studies and other due diligence projects for public agencies, facilities and ownership groups during his NGF tenure.