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Just when we thought it was safe to drop the private vs. public debate here in Bella Vista, it has come up once again.

Some residents who believe the POA should be private like to say that's why they bought their home here. Private lakes, private golf courses -- what's not to like?

One resident told the board at its last meeting that a private lake is safer than a public lake, although she didn't say why. It's hard to see how opening a lake to the public automatically makes it more dangerous, but it doesn't matter. The lakes are private. Lake rangers can, and do, check lake users for membership cards and boat registrations. Guests pay an extra fee for day use and cannot register a boat for more than a week at a time.

The amenities that are now open to the public are the trails and the restaurants. There are two good reasons for the trails to remain open to the public.

First, the POA board already agreed to the deal with the Walton Family Foundation. The Foundation paid for the trails at the cost of over $6 million and specified that they would be open. It also built parking areas at several trailheads.

Second, policing the trails for nonmembers usage would be impossible. How many Lake Rangers would it take to stop and check the dozens (maybe hundreds) of people using the trails on any given day?

The restaurants are also open to the public. Everyone knows the restaurants -- including Papa Mike's which is leased to a private party -- need all the business they can get. It wouldn't make sense to close the restaurants to the public.

It is the golf courses which are at the heart of the private vs. public debate. At one time, Bella Vista residents could happily drive their golf carts to the closest course and play for free. Those were the days when the Country Club was crowded with men in suits and women in cocktail dresses. Those days are long since over.

Although there are questions about the validity of reported golf rounds, often the peak is considered the over 365,000 rounds played in 1998. After that, the number of rounds started dropping. There was one good year in 2012 when the numbers went up, but the downward trend returned in 2013. By 2017 rounds were down to 151,000.

It's hard to look at those numbers and argue that the same number of courses that handled 365,000 golfers are needed for 151,000; but, to be fair, the POA no longer operates the same number of courses. The nine-hole course at Branchwood was closed after a flood in 2013 and half of the 18-hole Berksdale course was taken out by a flood in 2017 and not reopened. So, while the number of rounds dropped by more than 200,000, the number of holes of golf dropped from 126 to 118.

Sometime around 2012, the POA board started talking about marketing to nonmembers who live in the area. The goal was to sell membership lots along with the $16 per month assessment and to get more golfers onto Bella Vista courses. Even then, it was an open secret that golf pros in the Bella Vista shops would often let nonmembers play. The nonmembers simply became guests of a member -- either the pro or a pro shop employee. About that same time, the infamous Golf Cards program got started. In August 2011, the Weekly Vista received a letter to the editor complaining that nonmembers who bought a card through a promotion on television station KFSM actually paid less per round for golf than members. A limited number of golf cards have been sold every year since 2011. But golf rounds continued to slip by about 4% a year, in spite of golf cards and membership lots.

Less golfers means less income, but it doesn't necessarily mean less expense. The courses still have to be fertilized and mowed and ready to open early each morning. A study by consultant Golf Property Analysts, commissioned by the board last year, reported that Bella Vista golf fees are "at the top end of the market for those courses that offer public play." An increase, the study continues, might mean fewer rounds played.

The obvious method to cut expenses would be to close a golf course, but which one? And what happens to the people who paid a premium to live on homes right on the course? So are the people who insist they want a private community going to support an assessment increase?

Something has to give. For years, the POA staff and board have been struggling to make a 2001 assessment pay for 2019 expenses without giving up a golf course. Nonmembers' usage fees are one reason they've been able to keep the courses open. Are nonmembers really so bad?

General News on 04/10/2019

Print Headline: Is it so bad to allow the public to use our golf courses?

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