COVID gave municipal golf courses record revenues, but also need to increase fees
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — With the coronavirus pandemic came droves of people seeking socially distant activities — and for many, golf fit that bill perfectly.
A round of nine holes let you stay with your "pod" while staying out of any sort of enclosed space.
- Finances for the municipal golf courses in Allentown and Bethlehem show a huge boom and record revenues driven by coronavirus pandemic conditions
- Despite the growth in revenue, pandemic conditions also brought excess costs compared with previous years, leading to fee increases
- Allentown Municipal Golf Course management said much of the growth has been seen in young golfers, something different from past years
So people picked up the game — and kept at it.
Golf boomed during the height of COVID-19 concerns, with the industry hitting all-time highs — something echoed at Lehigh Valley golf courses.
Allentown and Bethlehem municipal golf course finances from recent years show that people came out in force to play golf, with operating revenues increasing significantly, bringing in what officials say are record high revenues.
"It's really the only sport that people were allowed to play because it was outside," Paul Viola, general manager of the Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course, said. "You can social distance, you know, and then it brought a lot of new people to the game."
Operating revenues excluding cash transfers and loan proceeds at Bethlehem's municipal golf course jumped more than 77% — from $1,143,871 in 2018 to a record $2,030,044 in 2021, the last year for which full revenues were accounted.
While the latter year includes a $160,000 state Department of Community and Economic Development Gaming Grant, the increase goes far beyond that, largely driven by increases in golf course fees, cart rentals and driving range fee increases.
At Allentown's municipal golf course, that same period saw operating revenues jump from $1,219,555 in 2018 all the way to $2,219,414 in 2021. That's a jump of nearly 82%.
That excludes a $375,000 transfer from the city's general fund in 2021 and each year including $21,080 and $24,193 of state aid pension funds, respectively.
Here to stay, and new devotees
And the higher plateau looks to stay, albeit at a slight decline from the 2021 peak.
Bethlehem's budget estimates $1,500,000 in revenue in 2022 and is budgeting for $1,598,324 in 2023.
Allentown's budgeting estimates 2022 saw revenues of $1,992,160 and is budgeting for $2,233,181 in 2023.
"COVID was definitely a big push for us, but I believe the COVID bubble was popped. I think that's kind of done, and we're still getting the rounds into play."Paul Viola, general manager of Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course
"COVID was definitely a big push for us, but I believe the COVID bubble was popped," Viola said. "I think that's kind of done, and we're still getting the rounds into play."
Golfer Kyle Buchman, 27, said many of his young friends who were not into golf before now are regulars, and he has seen others his age — both men and women — picking up the game during the pandemic.
"Outside of, like, going for hikes or, you know, through something like that, you can come out in the golf course," Buchman said.
"I think a lot of the public courses in the area got a big fresh wave of people that either played didn't play golf for a while and thought, 'Hey, I have set of golf clubs; I could go play golf,' or new people buying golf clubs.
"I find myself like getting more invitations to play golf with people I never thought I would, as well as helping people that ask for tips and stuff like that."
'One of the go-to sports now'
Jeffrey Wambold, manager of the Allentown Municipal Golf Course, said he has been seeing more people in their 20s and 30s than before coming out to play the traditionally older-skewed sport, and that much of the increase came from that age range.
"It's a very athletic generation," Wambold said. "It's amazing how many women play golf, how many men play golf at those ages — when I grew up, nobody played at those ages."
Part of that, he theorized, was increased access to learning opportunities and instruction than in past years and the existence of professional tours throughout the world increasing the notoriety of the sport.
He also noted the proposal for the Topgolf facility — a popular indoor golf entertainment chain — in Lower Macungie Township.
On Tuesday, Saucon Valley Country Club announced that the United States Golf Association has chosen the facility to be host for five different USGA championship events.
"It's kind of one of the go-to sports now, I think, for people at any age," Wambold said. "Every day this place really packs them in, It's crazy."
Wambold said 2019 already was a record year for the course, and he even said he believes the golf course missed out on some revenue when COVID initially hit because of restrictions, based on the trajectory that was seen.
Facility improvements also helped
Both Wambold and Viola cited recent upkeep and renovations at their courses as also having been a draw for new and returning players.
Viola also said the City of Bethlehem has been very supportive of the course, with recent facility improvements and maintenance, and credits the good conditions of the facilities as a major part of its success.
"COVID helped the total golfing industry, even country clubs. It helped everybody."Robert Della Sala, president of Brookside Country Club in Macungie
Bethlehem's course underwent a $1.7 million renovation — removing trees, redoing bunkers and changing many parts of the course. It was completed in 2021.
In 2021, Allentown's golf course got a $375,000 transfer from the city's general fund, which funded a feasibility study for renovations across the facilities, as well as doing work on bunkers and other maintenance.
He said profit revenues also often go into maintenance of the course.
The past few years was a rising tide felt by the whole industry, according to Robert Della Sala, president of Brookside Country Club in Macungie.
"COVID helped the total golfing industry, even country clubs," Della Sala said. "It helped everybody."
Over the prior year, Brookside gained more than 100 new member families, driven in large part by golf. But Della Sala said other factors, such as pool access and a year-round tennis program, played a big factor, as well.
Brookside now is set to undergo its own $7 million renovations at the private facilities.
Pandemic a double-edged sword
It isn't all booming success for golf courses.
Financial documents paint a picture of how inflationary pressures and increased costs have made an impact even on otherwise growing parts of the economy.
"While facilities are having record numbers, it doesn't mean they're having record profits," Viola said.
"Our expenses are through the roof," he said. "Cost of gasoline, electric, cost of chemicals, supplies, parts for equipment. equipment. I mean, everything is [increased], just like any other business."
In response, golf facilities such as the municipal courses in Allentown and Bethlehem have increased fees for golfers going into the 2023 season, despite their record increases in revenue.
Wambold said that at Allentown's golf course, rates typically increase every other year to address cost increases. As with Bethlehem, materials costs became a much bigger burden, with Wambold saying petroleum -products were a big driver of that.
"Our chemical budget ended up going up about 70%," Wambold said. "This year when I raised the rates, I needed to cover about $172,000 worth of increase, and that's not just over the year to year, it's actually" since 2021.
Allentown has increased all season pass fees $150 for weekday season passes and $200 for seven-day passes, with the resident five-day season pass growing from $900 to $1,150 and the seven-day season pass from last year's $1,150 to $1,350.
Wambold said some rates adjust divides between walking and riding to create a greater price distinction between the two types of play.
At Bethlehem, costs are increasing, but not much, with many green fees going up only a dollar or two, and some not at all. Season passes are not being altered.
Allentown's municipal golf course has been open for the season starting in late February, while Bethlehem's course is yet to open for the season.
Fees increasing at Allentown Municipal Golf Course:
|Resident Season Pass (7 Day)||$1,150||$1,350|
|Resident Season Pass (5 day)||$900||$1,050|
|Non-Resident Season Pass (7 Day)||$1,400||$1,600|
|Non-Resident Season Pass (5 Day)||$1,100||$1,250|
|Weekday 18 Hole Resident||$41 Riding, $24 Walking||$45 Riding, $26 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Non-Resident||$44 Riding, $27 Walking||$48 Riding, $29 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Non-Resident Senior||$41 Riding, $24 Walking||$45 Riding, $26 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Resident Senior||$38 Riding, $21 Walking||$42 Riding, $23 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Twilight Non-Resident||$42 Riding, $25 Walking||$46 Riding, $27 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Twilight Resident||$39 Riding, $22 Walking||$43 Riding, $24 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Non-Resident Junior||$36 Riding, $20 Walking||$43 Riding, $24 Walking|
|Weekday 18 Hole Resident Junior||$33 Riding, $17 Walking||$40 Riding, $21 Walking|
|Weekday Winter||$37 Riding, $25 Walking||$46 Riding, $27 Walking|
|Weekend 18 Hole Junior (Afternoon)||$36 Riding, $20 Walking||$41 Riding, $22 Walking|
|Weekend 18 Hole||$56 Riding, $39 Walking||$60 Riding, $41 Walking|
|Weekend 18 Hole Twilight (aft 2pm)||$44 Riding, $27 Walking||$48 Riding, $29 Walking|
|Weekend Winter||$39 Riding, $27 Walking||$48 Riding, $29 Walking|
|18 Hole Specials||$30 Riding, $30 Walking||$35 Riding, $25 Walking|
|Weekday 9 Hole Non-Resident||$29 Riding, $21 Walking||$31 Riding, $21 Walking|
|Weekday 9 Hole Non-Resident Senior||$28 Riding, $18 Walking||$28 Riding, $18 Walking|
|Weekday 9 Hole Resident||$26 Riding, $18 Walking||$28 Riding, $18 Walking|
|Weekday 9 Hole Resident Senior||$25 Riding, $18 Walking||$25 Riding, $18 Walking|
|Weekend 9 Hole||$30 Riding, $22 Walking||$32 Riding, $22 Walking|
Driving range fees also increased by $1 for each type of ball bucket from last year.
Fees increasing at Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course:
|Fee||2022 Rates||2023 Rates|
|Monday - Friday|
|Green Fees||$47 Riding, $27 Walking||$48 Riding, $28 Walking|
|Senior Green Fees||$42 Riding, $22 Walking||$42 Riding, $22 Walking|
|Student||$16 Walking||$17 Walking|
|Twilight Monday - Thursday After 2 PM 18 Holes||$38 Riding, $18 Walking||$38 Riding, $19 Walking|
|Twilight Friday After 3 PM 18 Holes||$38 Riding, $18 Walking||$38 Riding, $19 Walking|
|Twilight Monday - Thursday After 2 PM 9 Holes||$29 Riding||$30 Riding|
|Twilight Friday After 3 PM 9 Holes||$29 Riding||$30 Riding|
|Weekends and Holidays|
|Open to 1 PM||$58 Riding, $58 Walking||$60 Riding, $60 Walking|
|1 PM to 3 PM||$52 Riding, $52 Walking||$55 Riding, $55 Walking|
|Twilight After 3 PM 18 Holes||$45 Riding, $25 Walking||$45 Riding, $25 Walking|
|Twilight After 3 PM 9 Holes||$36 Riding||$36 Riding|
|Student After 3 PM 18 Holes||$16 Walking||$17 Walking|
|9 Hole Course M-F|
|Green Fees||$28 Riding, $18 Walking||$30 Riding, $20 Walking|
|Senior Green Fees||$26 Riding, $16 Walking||$26 Riding, $16 Walking|
|Student||$13 Walking||$15 Walking|
|Twilight After 3 PM||$26 Riding, $16 Walking||$27 Riding, $17 Walking|
|9 Hole Course Weekends and Holidays|
|Green Fees||$30 Riding, $20 Walking||$32 Riding, $22 Walking|
|Student||$13 Walking||$15 Walking|
|Twilight After 4 PM||$28 Riding, $18 Walking||$28 Riding, $18 Walking|