Cherry Hill Golf Course in Amherst again in the red

  • In this 2013 photo, Cherry Hill Golf Course in Amherst hosted the Western Massachusetts Division 2 championship. Changes at the town-owned course are under discussion the course will face a year-end budget shortfall this year. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 07, 2017

AMHERST — Another year-end shortfall in revenue for Cherry Hill Golf Course is prompting town officials to take a closer look at whether there are ways to improve the town-owned site’s financial performance.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tuesday that before any decisions are made on the course’s future, he wants data about how the Montague Road golf course did in July and August, months that were cooler and wetter than in the summer of 2016, when hot and dry conditions proved particularly problematic for maintaining the greens.

Bockelman said analyzing this data will be important in the coming months as he creates a municipal budget for fiscal 2019 to be presented to Select Board in January, and later voted on by Town Meeting.

“It’s something to look at in preparation for putting together the budget,” Bockelman said.

Revenue for Cherry Hill in fiscal 2017, which ended July 1, was projected at $227,638, but actual revenue came in at just 80 percent, falling $45,344 short at $182,293.

The largest revenue categories — green fees and memberships — were down, part of a regional and national trend of dwindling participation, Bockelman said. That issue is exacerbated, he added, in a community with three golf courses, with Cherry Hill competing with the private Hickory Ridge and Amherst Golf Club.

Cherry Hill did fine on the spending side, with a budget of $245,054 and $243,879 expended.

At a recent Select Board meeting, member Andy Steinberg said there are legitimate concerns about the golf course’s performance.

“I think we should recognize also that the expenditures for the golf course pretty much came in right on budget,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said he hopes that town staff will look at whether rate increases or other adjustments can bring the budget into balance.

Bockelman will have to wrestle with whether a $45,000 investment is worthwhile for the benefits it provides the community.

“We need to decide if it’s an activity we want to support financially,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman said those who play the course appreciate that it is well maintained.

Amherst resident Carl Vigeland, a golfer and high school golf coach, sent a letter to Bockelman that urged the town to continue its support for the golf course, comparing it to other amenities in town.

“In brief, little that any municipality does makes money, and the fact that Cherry Hill is used by only a portion of our town population is no different from what one would say about virtually any other town activity or facility,” Vigeland wrote.

The financial challenges faced by Cherry Hill are not new. In fact, from its purchase in 1987 until his death in February, Town Meeting member Larry Kelley was a frequent critic of Cherry Hill, both through his blog and by raising questions at Town Meeting. He estimated that in its first 20 years, Cherry Hill had cost the town $900,000, from deficits, employee benefits and capital expenses.

Bockelman said he appreciates that those who have run the course have an entrepreneurial spirit, creating the WinterFest that activates the golf course every February, a pro shop that sells items and adding disc golf. There are also activities that have public uses that don’t bring in revenue, such as cross country skiing when there is a significant snow pack.

Bockelman said the town is somewhat limited in what it can do with the course, with the $2.2 million used to acquire the 91-acre course and nearby land including state grants that restrict its use to open space and recreation.

Town Meeting at the time was told that users of the course would cover all expenses, not taxpayers.

An objective for the golf course in fiscal 2018, which began July, 1, outlined in the budget Bockelman prepared in January and Town Meeting approved this spring, is “to fully fund the (Cherry Hill) operations through grants, fees and programming income.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.