Heritage Oaks getting into full swing despite budget cuts

A city Parks and Recreation Department slide from a presentation made to City Council in January showing the Heritage Oaks Golf Course.

By Graham Schiltz, contributor

After shutting down earlier this spring, Heritage Oaks Golf Course reopened golf operations on June 12. And while the course stayed available during the pandemic for cyclists and walkers, who populated the course like never before, Heritage Oaks was in the minority of Virginia courses that closed for COVID-19. WVVA reported in April that 89% of the other courses in the Virginia State Golf Association were still open for business.

“We have a dedicated golfing community that cherishes Heritage Oaks Golf Course, and it pained us to have to close it for as long as we did,” Harrisonburg’s Director of Communications Michael Parks said. “But health and wellness is always going to come first, as it has for all city facilities that were and still remain closed.” 

Though funding for the golf course has fluctuated in the last 10 years, it has remained relatively consistent. In May, however, Heritage Oaks’ budget was cut by nearly a third —  from $733,000 to $487,000 for grounds management and $554,000 to $330,000 for the clubhouse. It’s the largest budget cut in the last 10 years, which is as far back as the city publishes its budgets online.

Parks said layoffs have not been discussed and day-to-day operations of the course will not change. Parks said he did not know at this time how the budget cuts would be implemented on the ground.

Opened in 2001 and promised to turn a profit by 2006, Heritage Oaks was and still is an “incredibly divisive issue in the community,” as city council member Richard Baugh said during a meeting in January

“We had an election while this thing was getting built that literally threw out everybody who had voted for it,” Baugh said. Two opposing petitions on Change.org concerning the golf course’s operation have garnered about 1,100 signatures against and 2,700 for, respectively. 

While the course brings in the most money of any Parks and Recreation program, it also costs the second most of all Parks and Recreation departments, with approximately $1.1 million in total operating costs for the 2019 fiscal year, according to the city’s annual financial report. Despite 26,762 rounds played in calendar 2019 and an income of just over $600,000 for the fiscal year, the net loss that year was over $500,000.

The course reopened last month at the behest of the Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Departmen and the newly formed city reopening committee. This committee consists of various city department heads and staff.

In response to COVID-19, Heritage Oaks is taking precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. There is more space between tee times, limits to the number of patrons allowed in the clubhouse, and restrictions on the number of people in carts.

“Reopening was only considered once we knew we could place the needed practices and protocols in place to ensure that the health and wellness of players and staff were maintained,” Parks said. “We are very grateful for the patience and understanding of all as we worked through how to reopen safely.”

On May 5, the city requested Heritage Oaks commence a study with a consultant to determine ways to either save or make more money. According to Parks, internal discussions are taking place to determine how to move forward with the committee, but this issue has taken a backseat behind “addressing issues like the city’s fiscal budget and the global pandemic impacting Harrisonburg, which take priority.” The study will involve, among others, members of the parks and recreation department and the city manager’s office. There is no timeline for the study at the moment.

Regardless of Heritage Oaks’ future, golfers are back on the links — albeit with some new regulations and growing uncertainty of its future. Questions about the budget and new study remain unanswered, but the coming months will show if they can make it out of the rough.

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