Back in the days of rampant resort development on Kaua`i– as if they ever ended– many of us thought that, in an attempt to keep it simple for voters, we should ask only one question of council candidates that year: “Do you play golf?”
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s it seemed like every resort– from the Hyatt at Maha`ulepu to Chris Hemmeter’s Westin– depended on having a golf course to make them “viable”– or at least that’s what they tried to tell the council and planning commission.
But at the time, before there were a gazillion golf courses on the island all “designed” by the top names in golf, there was what is still called “the jewel” of the county’s Parks and Recreation system: the Wailua Golf Course.
It was once named one of the top municipal golf courses in the country and was not just meticulously maintained– all by one old guy with a green thumb, infinite energy and love of golf and golfers– but it broke even, paying for itself through round and cart fees and the proceeds from the “19th hole” concession.
So the Kaua`i County Council, in its infinite wisdom, decided that since it was self-supporting it should be funded using what’s called an “enterprise fund”– a separate account, set up in perpetuity for an operation that’s supposed be self-supporting.
The problem is that the old maintenance guy retired and the irrigation system rusted out and the council started throwing money into things like a new drip irrigation system (that never did work right) and outside consultants.
But they never did get the same results and now the “self-supporting” golf course costs around an extra half-a-million dollars each year- subsidized from the general fund- in order to operate.
Over the past few years the council has tried everything from raising fees for each round to lowering the fees to get more people to play more rounds, especially tourists. When they tried “adjusting” the fees for local youth and seniors it caused enough of an outcry that any further thought of actually making local people pay to play golf was permanently back-burnered.
The only place to look for revenue ended up being that “19th hole”– the restaurant, bar and “pro shop.”
So last spring the council was thrilled when local attorney and former Prosecutor Mike Soong and his friend, bail bondsman Darrell Horner, opened the incredibly tone-deafly-named Jailhouse Pub & Grill– so monikered because it sits across from the Kaua`i County Correctional Center.
Councilmembers proclaimed this to be just the thing that was going to save the golf course– or at least somehow save the “enterprise fund” aspect of it and maybe put a dent in the half-million dollars of taxpayer money being pumped into the “enterprise fund” every year.
Oh, why?.. didn’t you hear? The Jailhouse Pub & Grill is now “officially closed” according to their phone message. The sign is gone and the door is locked. Pau already.
According to an article in the The Garden Island just last May:
Late last year, Mike Soong learned the county was seeking bids to fill the space for its former bar “Par for the Course.” By February they were awarded the contract and a 7-year-lease.
Seems they didn’t even make it seven months.
This whole fiasco just further shines a light on the absurd conundrum that is the Wailua Golf Course. If the county doesn’t charge enough per round they will not be able to get it to break even. And if they raise the price to where it will pay for itself people, especially the tourists who pay the higher fees, will say to themselves “for that kind of money I’d rather go to one of the resort golf courses” which are meticulously maintained by the resorts– and which the resorts subsidize as they would any “essential” amenity.
The “clubhouse” was never designed to– and never will– pay for the difference between what the county can charge for a round of golf and what it costs to keep the place “well maintained,” a condition that any golfer will tell you, is anything but the case these days despite millions in capital improvements and outside groundskeeping consultants. That “investment” in this “jewel” has only added to the increasing negative balance of the “enterprise fund” at a rate that makes ever catching-up impossible.
We’re not sure whether it was the name or what but the quick opening and closing of the Jailhouse Pub and Grill indicates that the council’s last, best hope for the golf course “breaking even” was a pipe dream to begin with.
It’s certainly time to, if nothing else, give up on the enterprise fund and get real with the taxpayers. Right now a handful of golfers are running the show proving that nothing really ever changes at the county building.
Maybe people don’t mind throwing that half-million bucks at a run-down facility that only serves a small fraction of a population that is desperate for more recreational facilites and in severe need of money for maintaince to keep the existing ones clean and operating.
But the council needs to at least start being honest enough to ask.
Journalist Andy Parx has covered Kaua`i government and politics for over 30 years in print and on local TV. He currently writes a daily on-line news, commentary and analysis column at "got windmills?- The Daily Tilt."
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