City Golf Courses: Whaddya Expect?

Some years ago a friend of mine, a weary veteran of Trying to Do Things in Chicago, was working with the city on a building project, and boxing with the usual shadows. He told me something that stuck with me.
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Some years ago a friend of mine, a weary veteran of Trying to Do Things in Chicago, was working with the city on a building project, and boxing with the usual shadows. He told me something that stuck with me.

He said he didn't so much mind that crooked deals sometimes get done in the city. What bugged him was that it seemed to him a straight deal can't get done. Like it's against the rules or something, or a slippery slope--do one honest deal and people might start to expect it.

Chicago has a chance to prove my friend wrong, by awarding a big contract to somebody nobody sent.

The management contract came up last January for the Chicago Park District's six golf courses. If you've ever played on these courses--we're talking Sydney Marovitz, Jackson Park, South Shore, Robert Black, Columbus Park, Marquette Park--you know that they need a shave and a haircut.

Hairy fairways and nappy greens, dirt bunkers, greasy ponds. Service with a smirk. And generally, just a half-assed, tumbledown, anything-goes attitude about things.

Now, I love these golf courses, divots and all--and I probably play them 25 times a year. From what I hear, they're a hell of a lot better than they were before a big, locally owned company called KemperSports took over their management from the Park District in the early 1990s. Kemper restored the asphalt tee boxes to grass and made a hundred other improvements.

But most of that work was done 15 years ago, and the Park District courses could be so much better--they could be jewels, to show off to out-of-town visitors. They could be as good as any public golf courses in the area--and for not much more money in greens fees.

How do I know?

Because I play another 25 rounds a year--hey, reporters don't have as much to do these days, have you noticed?--at the 10 golf courses of Cook County's Forest Preserve.

As I chronicled in an April 1, 2007 story in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine (a story Trib columnist Eric Zorn updated in this blog item last spring) the county awarded the contract for these courses to another management company, Billy Casper Golf.

Over the last six years, I've watched those Forest Preserve courses transform themselves. Once centers of embezzlement dismally maintained by patronage goons, they've become and remained everything that I thought government-run golf courses could never be: cheerfully and efficiently run, imaginatively marketed with lots of special offers and organized tournaments and outings, and most of all, beautifully maintained.

For the most part--Edgebrook is a stepchild, still with asphalt tees--these courses are maintained to the level you'd expect at any decent public golf course. That means smooth greens, well-maintained bunkers, tightly mowed and watered fairways. On most of these courses, you often forget entirely you're on government turf. And the greens fees haven't gone up more than three or four bucks per round.

So why can't the Park District tracks be this good?

At the end of my 2007 article I noted that the contract for these courses was due to come up in January of '08 and quoted Billy Casper's regional VP Bill Rehanek as saying his organization would like a shot at the contract.

Kemper was not amused. I caught wind that the CEO of KemperSports tracked down Trib golf writer Ed Sherman at the Masters to bellow about this piece. Some Kemper marketing people called me and gave me the third degree--which courses did you play and when did you play them?--until I hung up on them. A rumor circulated that Rehanek and I were old pals. (No, Rehanek and I had never met. Old pals are Mayor Daley and Kemper's former CEO Steve Lesnik, who made a $1,500 individual donation to Daley's reelection campaign fund in 2003.)

Eventually, everything died down, as everything usually does.

But last fall, Rehanek told me he'd spoken with a Park District exec about having Billy Casper put in a bid in January. Rehanek was hopeful, but then the exec stopped returning calls. Skeptical about Casper's chances and not wanting to start a war between Casper and Kemper, Rehanek was not inclined to make a stink.

Sometime in March, I called the Park District and asked whether they'd started the bidding process. Hmmm, we'll have to get back to you. The RFP went up on the CPD's website the next day. Rehanek put together a bid complete with photos of abominations on the Park District courses and a guarantee of some heavy capital improvements, along with a revenue deal similar to the one Cook County gets. (Again, see the Zorn blog for details).

Rehanek presented his bid in late spring and the Park District has spent the summer narrowing several bidders down to Casper and Kemper, asking questions and deliberating. And the multi-year deal may well be deserving of deliberation, especially if Casper's competition inspired Kemper to significantly sweeten its offer.

In any case, the word is a winner should be announced soon.

Meanwhile, I slog around the haggard old Park District tracks and revel in the comparative splendor of the Forest Preserve courses, and wonder if my friend was right: Is it really impossible to do a straight deal in Chicago?

I guess we'll find out soon.

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