The industry and all of its warts, either perceived or real, has once again come under the public microscope in the controversy about the number of developments/proposed developments replacing golf courses these days, but the game is really just a minor part of a bigger picture.
That trend is particularly acute in the Toronto area where Glen Abbey in Oakville, Highland Gate in Aurora, Saw-Whet in Oakville, Mandarin and York Downs in Markham, Glenway in Newmarket and Copper Creek in Vaughan are at various stages of proposing/transforming into housing.
You can read more in this story in the Toronto Star by Noor Javed, who quotes ClubLink CEO and chair Rai Sahi as saying “The golf course business is getting challenging. Firstly, courses are open only half the year.”
Well, guess what? Golf courses in most of Canada have always been open half the year, give or take a month or two, so nothing has changed there.
Might it be golf’s leveling off or shrinking in participation that is causing owners to put their golf courses on the market?
It’s a minor factor at best and don’t get me wrong, golf does have its challenges in participation going forward, but it’s not the main reason for courses being handed over to developers.
“Truthfully, as a businessman if there was an opportunity to develop golf course into residential . . . it’s a better deal to build,” Sahi told Javed.
Bingo. There you go.
ClubLink has faced dwindling membership the past few years, but if the Toronto-area market was as red hot as it is now back in ClubLink’s heyday, you can bet the same thing would have happened back in the 1990s when participation was deemed much stronger than today.
When ClubLink bought Glen Abbey for $40-million from what was the Royal Canadian Golf Association back in the late ‘90s, a popular reaction was speculating how long it would take before the Abbey was developed to offset the money going out to acquire/build the golf courses in the company portfolio.
Those who are ringing the death knell for golf while examining the replacement of golf courses with developments might want to consider that participation and the hard slugging of the golf industry is nothing but a smokescreen that hardly blocks out the fact that York Downs got $412-million for its property.
It also doesn’t hide the fact that less-than-average homes in Toronto are going for $1-million or more.
This is less about participation numbers as it is about the dollars involved in a red-hot market in which those gaping fairways are tempting to developers. The only green they see are shaped as dollar signs.
Golf is the latest frontier in what is becoming one development after another. If a developer went to the owner of a family farm with the kind of money they threw at York Downs, you can bet the farmer would take the money and run.
That, too, has happened frequently over the years, so it isn’t just golf, in which some believe that this is actually a market correction after the overbuilding that went on, particularly in the Toronto area, in the ‘90s and into the last decade.
As flavour-of-the-month courses opened at regular intervals in that era, there were, no doubt, speculators willing to bide their time as a golf course operated on the property and the market they’ve been waiting for has arrived.
Even those who were serious about running a golf course would need tests done if they didn’t seriously consider the kind of money that’s being thrown around these days, particularly if they’ve been in the business for decades and are on the verge of retirement.
But all of that holds true for any landowner, golf course or not, and judging by overall development in the area, governments at various levels are going along with it while eyeing the treasures available through taxes and economic stimulus in the construction of homes.
The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is considered by many to be beyond developer friendly in its mission to make decisions on appeals that arise under the Planning Act for planning instruments, such as official plans, zoning bylaws, subdivision plans, consents and minor variances.
On the flip side of that are people in existing homes who bought thinking that they were buying on green space and whether you believe they have a right to do that or not, they’re all over municipal officials such as Oakville mayor Rob Burton, who joined me and host Marci Ien on a segment of CTV’s Canada AM to chat about this issue on Tuesday.
If you haven’t seen that segment, you can view it here.
Besides the loss of cherished green space, Oakville stands to lose a calling card to the world with Glen Abbey’s status as, for all intents and purposes, as the home of the RBC Canadian Open. In Saw-Whet, it loses an old favourite.
In February, Oakville passed an interim control bylaw to restrict the Abbey to its current uses for a year as it completes key planning studies, so development is on hold for now. You can read more here.
“Provincial legislation is very clear that growth in local municipalities must be aligned with provincial planning objectives,” Burton said at the time.
“Any project of a significant size and scope which could alter Oakville’s existing planned approach in our Livable Oakville Official Plan needs careful study and analysis.”
Burton is calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne to protect the integrity of her provincial growth plan and 40 municipalities are expected at a summit in May to discuss that issue, as well as the fairness of the OMB process.
Where that goes remains to be seen, but at this point, the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
One thing is clear, however.
Golf may be the current stage on which this is being played out, but it isn’t the only one when it comes to green space being chewed up by development. Its viability as a business isn’t nearly as much of a factor as the rocketing cost of land in the area and the developers who will pay it.
With such a concentrated population that is ever-growing, how far does it go and what affect will it have on communities in terms of infrastructure, the increasing need for affordable housing, quality of life and other issues?
The big picture is society in general, with golf only being a microcosm of the overall challenges that are ahead.