This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Chambers Bay – Pierce County’s high-end golf course in University Place – has drawn fans and critics alike since opening in June 2007.
What it hasn’t yet attracted is enough paying golfers to cover the bills.
The course lost $1.3 million in 2009, its second full year of operation. Pierce County loaned the course $2.5 million to cover the loss, plus expenses associated with making course improvements for this year’s U.S. Amateur Championship.
It’s not the strong start that the course’s planners envisioned. Then again, this is not the economy anyone would have predicted in 2007. A golf course opened on the eve of the Great Recession can be forgiven for having a bad year.
The course’s losses are cause for concern and action, but they shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Chambers Bay was never a get-rich scheme. It was always a means to an end – that end being the faster development of an unrivaled public park on Puget Sound.
Some history helps put the project in perspective. The 930-acre Chambers Creek site – of which the golf course occupies but 250 acres – was from the start a long-term investment in the county’s future growth.
The county originally bought the site not for a golf course or even a park, but to expand its wastewater treatment facility. It needed a place to spray treated wastewater that might have once gone into the Sound.
But Pierce County couldn’t just leave the former gravel mine as is – federal mining regulations and sound public policy prohibited letting such prime waterfront property remain an eyesore.
The plan to develop the Chambers Creek Properties into a park emerged in 1995 from public input. Participants in that process called for subsidizing the public amenities with revenue-generating uses; they settled on a restaurant and golf course.
Under the original plan, it would have taken a half century for Pierce County residents to realize the full benefit of the property. Former County Executive John Ladenburg seized on the idea of throwing development into fast-forward by building the kind of golf course that could demand top greens fees.
The destination course has yet to prove itself a success, but no one can dispute that the trail and meadows it helped fast-track are an unqualified triumph.
And Pierce County hasn’t seen anything yet. Soon, a bridge over train tracks will open up 2ß miles of beach that have been closed to the public for a century.
Business at Chambers Bay can only improve as the economy recovers and the course reaps priceless publicity for hosting national golf tournaments. It can’t truly be judged a winner or loser until after it has been minted a U.S. Open course in 2015.
Until then, go enjoy the view – and every other public amenity the county’s calculated gamble bought citizens 50 years ahead of schedule.