AIMS report much too harsh on P.E.I. golf industry

Government makes two investments in 44 years; critics think we’re awash in publicly-owned courses

Published on February 11, 2015

A golfer walks towards a green at the Clyde River Golf Course. An AIMS research report says government efforts at developing a golf industry have not produced the desired results.

©Guardian file photo by Brian McInnis

At one point in the early to mid-1990s on P.E.I., building a golf course was considered a licence to print money. A popular story that regularly made the rounds in those heady days was that a farmer went to the bank looking for a loan to expand his agricultural operation and was turned down. The farmer then asked about possible financing to build a golf course instead and the bank asked, “How much do you want?”

The golf boom was in full bloom and nothing could stop it.

A report released Tuesday by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies provides a harsh assessment of our provincial government’s involvement over the years in P.E.I.’s golf industry, suggesting it was a poor investment which ended up costing the province millions. The study doesn’t mention the revenue generated by golf nor what our tourism industry would be without our courses. The study is both narrow in scope and often too critical.

Government involvement with P.E.I. golf started back in 1939 when Ottawa built Green Gables in Cavendish to enhance the national park.

Before 1990, there were just seven, 18-hole courses on P.E.I. Besides Green Gables, the province built Brudenell in 1969 to spark tourism in Kings County and Mill River in 1971 to create a tourism attraction in West Prince. Few people could criticize those investments or the returns they have generated since then.

The opening of Crowbush in 1993 put P.E.I. on the international golf map and helped launch our golf boom. The construction of the Confederation Bridge was going to cause a tidal wave of tourism and the surging popularity of the sport resulted in an explosion of courses.

AIMS said the province should have stayed out of the ownership game when the building boom started, but the fact remains that Crowbush put P.E.I. on the world-wide golf destination map and Dundarave was the only other provincial course acquired during this boom period.

P.E.I. has benefitted from golf courses under both Conservative and Liberal governments. The province shouldn’t be faulted for trying to bring tourism opportunities to Kings and West Prince counties. The subsequent construction of Rodd properties at these provincial courses provided quality destinations. And we were left with great courses — both 18 and nine holes.

Our governments made a sound decision at the time to promote golf as a centrepiece of its tourism development strategy. Golf tourism has worked and continues to work. It might not bring the profitable returns some people think is needed to justify the provincial ownership of four courses, but can anyone imagine this province in the summer without our golf courses? The real question is where would tourism numbers be without golf? Golf investments have produced huge economic spinoffs and returns for Island taxpayers.

The province said it would sell its courses if it got fair value for the properties, plus guarantees to protect Island tourism and golf industry. That makes sense. Government’s move into golf course ownership started over 45 years ago. Its involvement with two courses since then seems widely overblown.

Tourism had a rebound year in 2014 on P.E.I. and with the dollar at 80 cents U.S., and gas below $1 per litre, there is reason to suggest U.S. visitors will increase significantly this year. The worst could be over but Island courses have to adhere to Marketing 101 – quality service, quality condition and competitive green fees.

P.E.I. is still considered Canada’s best golf vacation getaway and one of the best-kept secrets on the world golf stage.