The future of city golf courses | Mark Klaas

A group in Kent is shooting to save the scenic par 3 course at the Riverbend Golf Complex.

A group in Kent is shooting to save the scenic par 3 course at the Riverbend Golf Complex.

They are prepared for a political and financial face-off with city of Kent officials and potential developers to keep a valley treasure that’s dear to the hearts of golfers and duffers, young and old.

The nine-hole par 3 course has been an affordable, popular short course of choice for seniors who no longer play for distance, kids who are interested in picking up the clubs for the first time and families who just want to share the spirit of the game.

“We’re not necessarily representing just us, we’re representing a ripple of time,” said Richard Anthony, a member of the Committee to Save the Par 3 who plays in the 60-strong senior men’s league at the course. “You’re talking generations (of golfers).”

But Riverbend’s operating losses and a $2.25 million debt has city officials exploring ways to turn the tide and make the complex financially self-sustainable.

One option is selling the par 3 to support the struggling complex’s other entities — the driving range, merchandise shop and 18-hole course.

The city has not made a decision. There is no timetable yet for a decision. It remains a difficult, unresolved issue.

Kent City Councilmember Dennis Higgins, who has had discussions with interested residents who want to preserve the par 3, remains open to suggestions.

“I know the administration continues to look at ideas, and no doubt my council colleagues have also had conversations with interested parties,” Higgins said. “It is still very unclear to me whether any of these ideas taken alone or in combination will be enough to solve the problems of the deficit, of the debt, and of the need to reinvest in the complex.

“But I would be very happy if a plan comes together that accomplishes all … these goals without needing to allocate from the general fund.”

Riverbend is not the only municipal golf course hurting by the effects of a soft economy and the region’s typical long wet weather. Auburn, Renton, Tukwila, Sumner and Maple Valley are facing similar challenges and have seen similar reductions in the number of annual rounds of golf played since 2007.

Kent’s par 3 course has experienced a decrease of 20.5 percent in the annual number of rounds played, which is approximately the average decline for nine hole and par 3 golf courses in Western Washington since 2007, according to a Kent City Council Parks Committee 2012 report.

Still, the Committee to Save the Par 3 wants the city to work out a sensible solution. The group says the city should consider including the par 3 into its more sustainable parks system. They welcome the possibility of a vendor perhaps operating the city-owned course. They welcome improvements to the course to attract more vistors.

The alternative of losing the par, the group says, would be aesthetically irreversible.

A possible par 3 sale has attracted developers, notably one who has expressed an interest in bringing a mixed-use project to fruition. That project could feature retail shops, public open spaces, a hotel, apartments and possibly condos.

All of which is a shame to a group of players who have been playing the par 3 for many years.

The Committee to Save the Par 3 wants the city to play ball and preserve a course that’s been a part of Kent’s recreational history. The committee fears that once the par is sold, a community treasure will be gone forever.

“We have responded … this is worthwhile keeping,” said Dick Gravender, president of the par 3 senior men’s league who has played at the course for about 25 years. “It beautifies what we have here in Kent … rather than have condominiums or whatever else put in over here.”

Future generation of golfers would lose, the group warns.

“The young kids need a place to learn how to play golf, and they’re disappearing very fast,” said Jerry Turley, a par 3 men’s league player. “Whole communities are getting rid of par 3s. This is a great facility. You just can’t do that to our youth.”

For now, the par 3’s future is uncertain.

“I can’t say for certain where the road will lead in 2014,” Higgins said of the issue. “That will be somewhat at the discretion of the new council president and certainly a part of the budget discussion later in the year. I appreciate any and all suggestions from the league group, and I will be continuing to explore alternatives.”