Commentary

City Should Consider Getting Out of Golf Business

As city after city regularly confronts their lethargic, money-losing golf courses, the debate always focuses on how to improve them, rather than whether they still serve a purpose.

By Zachary Spicer
Published March 03, 2016

Why is Hamilton in the golf business? This past week, Hamilton City Council has taken time to debate its municipally-owned golf courses. The city owns two: Chedoke, on Aberdeen Road, and King's Forest, near the Red Hill Valley Parkway.

Chedoke Golf Course (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Chedoke Golf Course (Image Credit: Google Maps)

The debate has centered on what to do with these two facilities. In short, fewer people are using the courses and the city is looking for ways to bolster revenue and turned to a group called "Global Golf Advisors" to provide advice on how to do so.

The proposed solution? Cut some green fees and occasionally offer last-minute deals to lure more customers.

Nearly absent from this debate, however, was any discussion of why Hamilton should remain in the golf business. Whether the courses generate a profit or not, there are some very good reasons why Hamilton - or any city for that matter - should question the continued existence of municipally-owned golf courses.

The most obvious thing about golf courses is that they are large. If these large courses were placed in rural areas, the problem would likely not be so bad. Instead, municipally-owned courses are usually in fairly well-established areas and, therefore, close to the city core.

Hamilton's courses fall into this category. Take Chedoke, for example, which consumes just over 220 acres and rests in the middle of established neighbourhoods like Abderdeen and Westdale and is adjacent to the McMaster Innovation Park. King's Forest is slightly larger at 250 acres.

King's Forest Golf Course (Image Credit: Google Maps)
King's Forest Golf Course (Image Credit: Google Maps)

The question, of course, is what else could be done with this land? The possibilities are endless, but dedicating this space to one activity limits the potential of the area, while adding to land scarcity nearby and driving up the cost of housing. Land is the most valuable commodity a city has; squandering it and not pricing it properly is a shame.

Along with this, of course, comes opportunity cost. Using almost 500 acres of prime urban land for golf courses means the city cannot collect tax revenue on the productive use of this land. How much is being lost? It's hard to say precisely, but what we do know is that we are currently losing money reserving the land for golfing.

But, of course, a municipally-owned golf course could make money. They could generate substantial income for the city. Currently, they are not, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that these courses could, in fact, earn their keep at some time in the future.

Proponents may look down Highway 401 to London to see some money-generating municipal courses. After many years of hemorrhaging cash, some of London's courses are generating a profit and contributing to the city's capital reserves.

How much? Of London's three courses, two ran small deficits, but the third - Thames Valley - ran a $59,000 surplus in 2014.

Few other cities can seem to squeeze a profit from their courses. Toronto, for instance, has one course - Dentonia Park - that lost $822,000 between 2007 and 2012. In total, Toronto's five courses only generated $521,000 as recently as 2012. Certainly nothing to write home amount considering the opportunity costs of keeping the courses in place.

Not everything a municipality does has to make money. Let's not kid ourselves: profit shouldn't be the only motivating factor when gauging the value of municipal services. We are, after all, talking about recreation - something that is firmly within the city's wheelhouse.

The logic here is that golf is a recreational service and should not be the sole domain of the rich. Everyone should have a chance to play the game.

We see this argument quite a bit from those who defend municipal golf courses. In this current debate, Ward 1 councillor Aiden Johnson trumpeted it loudly. He argued that Chedoke was founded as a "working person's golf course" and is a "valuable part" of his Ward.

He continued, arguing that municipally-run courses make the sport of golf less "elite" and, in turn, allow those with lower incomes to enjoy the game.

Proponents like Johnson present an interesting argument, but one that I don't find particularly convincing. We need to be clear about the goals of local recreation programming. One would think the goal would be to encourage physical activity, rather than being a type of redistribution program.

Even if we did see golf courses fitting into this category, maintaining a city-run golf course would not necessarily fulfill those goals. For one, some area courses cost less to play (such as Buncrana) or are priced similarly (such as Flamborough Hills).

But even if we priced courses like Chedoke well below every other privately owned course in the city, there is no guarantee we would actually make golf more accessible to lower-income members of the community. Rather, we could just as likely be providing a subsidy for those who could very well pay market prices.

The proper way to increase accessibility would be means testing, but that falls well outside the current debate. Keeping the course is likely the least egalitarian thing we could do, given that the land could be used for something like affordable housing or a large urban park that could be made available for a number of different uses.

As city after city regularly confronts their lethargic, money-losing golf courses, the debate always focuses on how to improve them, rather than whether they still serve a purpose (if they ever did to begin with). Hamilton does not necessarily need to sell its two courses or re-purpose them, but it is at least worth discussing.

Chedoke Golf Course (RTH file photo)
Chedoke Golf Course (RTH file photo)

Zachary Spicer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brock University. He lives in Hamilton and golfs regularly (but is still pretty bad at it). You can follow him on twitter @ZacSpicer.

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By pinerider (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 08:38:47

"The possibilities are endless"?
I don't think so. Much of King's Forest is flood plain and Red Hill creek floods regularly. Would citizens approve of affordable housing in a green space? I don't think so. Hamilton needs all the green space it can get, if they can try to make a few bucks from it with a golf course, I think that's fine with most of us....

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By StephenMartin (registered) | Posted March 06, 2016 at 11:36:05 in reply to Comment 116738

Keep escarpment land (or adjacent land) as parkland, and sell the rest. If we are to subsidize recreation spaces or facilities, let's have them apply to activities or a demographic that depend on subsidies. Does the golfer gang need public money to keep on doing their thing? Um, no.

Comment edited by StephenMartin on 2016-03-06 11:37:14

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2016 at 00:39:16 in reply to Comment 116738

A golf course is green-space that most of the city will never visit or enjoy. If you want "green terrain 99% of Hamiltonians don't actually go to" we have the entire escarpment for that. We have the vast RBG preserved area in Dundas Valley and the like.

I get that Hamilton needs green space, but it needs a mosaic of parks throughout the city. We've got vast tracts of natural terrain thanks to the Escarpment, not to mention Cootes Paradise and the spectacularly massive Dundas Valley Conservation Area. We've got massive parks in the form of Confed park, Gage park, Dundas Driving park, and Churchill park. We could easily leave a park larger than the massive Churchill park at Chedoke and still have over 150 acres to develop. 130 if we wanted to go bigger and make it another Gage. Another park with a climber downtown would do far more for "green space" in Hamilton than the Beddoe and the Martin, at only 1% of the acreage.

Density is the way to help the environment, and growth here in Ward 1 is prettymuch flat. The alternative seems to be more low-density suburban sprawl out in Binbrook.

Chedoke is a prime location for high-density transit-oriented development. Imagine it - dense 3-story townhomes like they're building in Burlington in the interior, leave a the current "sledding park" established at the end of Beddoe Drive and add some benches and playgrounds - this would be the neighborhood's main park. Keep the trees that surround the permeter of the neighborhood to bracket it away from Kirkendall and keep natural terrain along the rail trails. Put a small park right at Aberdeen and Studholm at the entrance to the neighborhood. Then build mid-rise apartments with ground-level retail along Studholme.

Throughout this, you include low-income housing into the mix, creating spots for that as well.

There - a green neighborhood with a good transit connection, low-income spots, 2 rail-trail bikeways, and immediate access to MIP, McMaster University, and the Hospital, and oodles of greenspace. What more could you want?

Housing prices are going through the roof, and the basic rule of economics is that prices rise when supply isn't keeping up with demand. If we don't create supply in urban settings, then supply will be provided by suburbia, and that will destroy far more greenspace and produce far worse carbon-emissions than a transit/cycling high-density community here.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2016-03-04 00:57:40

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted March 04, 2016 at 16:09:30 in reply to Comment 116804

The question, of course, is what else could be done with this land?

Both King's Forest (map 59) and Chedoke (map 58) golf courses are in the Niagara Escarpment Commission's Development Control Area

Land use is regulated by the NEC so to get your green neighbourhood you'd have to ask them first.

Comment edited by Crispy on 2016-03-04 16:10:59

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2016 at 15:06:04 in reply to Comment 116831

Seeing as how they are allowing construction of condos on land along the escarpment currently, I don't think they'll have any serious issues with it. Particularly not if the most sensitive areas are maintained as green space.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted March 10, 2016 at 16:23:40 in reply to Comment 116952

I'm pretty sure an old factory/bowling alley/taxi cab/ambulance depot site with a road cutting between it and the escarpment isn't looked at the same as virgin escarpment greenspace land.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2016 at 16:48:21 in reply to Comment 116954

A golf course is hardly "virgin". I mean, you could argue that King's Forest is still heavily forested, but the Martin is basically a lawn.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted March 10, 2016 at 19:35:05 in reply to Comment 116955

true enough. But at least it's all 'green'. No factory buildings or roads or parking lots. Def need more trees at Chedoke IMO

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 09:12:15

We need more parks, not less. If a park has a golf course on it, so be it. It's better than developing it into houses or factories. In addition, Hamilton needs more density in the downtown. We should be banning the development of any green spaces, not encouraging it.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2016 at 00:14:47 in reply to Comment 116739

Would you consider Gage Park to be a large park or a small park? Well the city's golf courses are about 3X teh size of Gage Park. You could probably fit all of the city's urban parks put together into Chedoke.

I live near Chedoke, and I would be perfectly happy to keep a large Chedoke Sledding Park with playgrounds and gardens and whatnot, and let the rest of the area be fully developed into high-density residential, with a commercial strip along Studholm where it meets Aberdeen. Give the neighbors a break on their property taxes for the next decade as a sweetener.

The Chedoke area would still have not one but two rail-trails.

Want to impress me? Build a new golf course and urban mega-park on the blighted landscape of Stelco after the industry gives up on it. It's not like that land is going to get used for anythign else.

Hell, if "more parks" is your goal, you could develop 75% of Chedoke and still make multiple respectably - large parks. Boom, more parks! (in quantity, not in surface-area).

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2016-03-04 00:46:38

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 09:21:23

What's next? While we're at it let's get rid of all the City owned the soccer fields, baseball diamonds, arenas, pools, playgrounds, parks, and rec centers.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2016 at 15:09:50 in reply to Comment 116740

Except those things all take up relatively little space compared to golf, and are much more accessible sports. Golf has real barriers to entry including costs, and difficulty.

Many private golf courses are closing or are not doing financially very well in the area. Golf is a game which is definitely on a downturn right now.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2016 at 00:15:20 in reply to Comment 116740

You could fit all of that stuff put together into just one of the city's three golf courses and have room to spare.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 09:23:24

I agree with the conversation about shrinking our golf holdings, but absolutely wouldn't support any 'development' on the land, no matter how valuable it is. Graham Crawford did a great piece a few years ago on a grand central park replacing one of Chedoke's courses, while improving the remaining golf course so that golfing was still a viable activity there. Great merit to such a plan IMO. We need more green space in this city, not less. But I'm not sure we need 2 golf courses right beside each other.

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By Phil (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 10:03:03 in reply to Comment 116741

I agree with what you are saying about shrinking the golf course holdings. Of the 2 courses at Chedoke, the Martin course is poor (as a golf course) and very underused. You can see some of the holes off Aberdeen Ave. That could be turned into an urban park that would enhance the city. The Beddoe is the better and more heavily used course I live close to Chedoke and see people walking, biking, and taking the #6 bus with their golf bags on their back to get a round in. it has value to those living in the city and can participate without a car.

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 09:43:19

Why is the city trying to make golf less elite? The game is elite by its very nature.

I don't want to see the land turned into a subdivision nut a more open public space I would welcome.

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By highasageorgiapine (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 10:53:40

as a kid growing up i was interested in golf, but being from a low income family i couldn't really afford much more than the local 9 hole municipal course a few blocks from my house. i used to take the only 2 clubs i had for my size and played pretty often most summers.

having publicly owned recreation facilities makes activities accessible to a wide population. simultaneously, maintaining these facilities shows community support for sport and physical activity, an important investment in public health.

i say the same thing over and over again, as a society we know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. if the city loses a few bucks (and let's be honest, in the grand scheme of things it's a drop in the bucket) so many of it's citizens are able to experience a novel sport and get outside in a lovely setting for some exercise i think it's fine.

i enjoy open public parks as much as the next person, but they are not as great for sporting activities. they tend to be most frequently used for getting dogs exercise, often to the detriment of other activities.

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By JPO (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 12:03:08

If you were to diagram the public use of the Chedoke golf course, I will guarantee that the stretch comprising the rail trail is more heavily used than the golf course. Yet the golf course is 100x larger. It's the nature of the game. So on an intensity basis, setting aside the questions of economic value, the golf course is plainly a poor use of land.

Of course value isn't just economic potential or even intensity of use. But you have to be able to pinpoint the value. This is prime environmental land as well. It could be added to the Niagara Escarpment area and increase biodiversity. It could become a centre for forest schools. Either of those would be great. So would development if people decide that's a better use of the land.

The problem with golf is it's low intensity, bad for the environment, and not particularly healthy even for the players, who almost exclusively use carts. Ban the carts and the seniors angle is gone.

My preference would be to bring it back to nature. The starting point for this discussion was completely flawed.

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By Shrinkster (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 13:22:06

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 13:52:44 in reply to Comment 116758

The writer doesn't agree with you. "Zachary Spicer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brock University. He lives in Hamilton and golfs regularly (but is still pretty bad at it)."

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By barney (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 22:36:19 in reply to Comment 116761

It's true. Golf is an elitist game, for rich fat men.

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By Meh (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:47:29 in reply to Comment 116761

The writer has come to realize that golf sucks since he's been at it for years and still sucks at it, like most golfers ;)

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By same lame argument (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 13:44:02

I dont ride a bike so screw bikes in favour of more active lanes for cars is the same argument as I hate golf so screw golfers and make another park for dog walking

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By Lockes (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 22:38:04 in reply to Comment 116760

Get rid of dog parks and golf courses. Put in things the majority can use. The utilitarian approach, most good for the most amount of ppl.

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted March 04, 2016 at 09:25:34 in reply to Comment 116794

Exactly. Think about how many tennis, ball hockey and basketball courts, soccer pitches, cricket grounds, jungle gyms (the list goes on) that you could put in that space.

Seems silly that golf occupies so much land and serves so few.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 13:53:02 in reply to Comment 116760

From the bio, "Zachary Spicer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brock University. He lives in Hamilton and golfs regularly (but is still pretty bad at it)."

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By Narla (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:05:25

Both King's Forest and Chedoke also used to have municipally-owned & operated ski hills. But they were money-sucking pits and were closed by the city. But I still loved learning at Chedoke and taking a bus or cab for a day of skiing.

What's the difference with golf?

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By TigerWoods (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 22:41:39 in reply to Comment 116769

Skiing during the winter when you can't engage in any other sport makes sense. Golf rest of the time when you could be doing soccer, football, baseball, cricket, volleyball, basketball, even hockey maybe, doesn't. Almost every other game allows for more people to participate. Not so with golf. Relegate it to mini-put, and a driving range. More than that is wasteful use of precious space.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:20:31 in reply to Comment 116769

They weren't money sucking pits. We had the highest paid lift attendants in the world, yes the whole wide world, due to closed shop union rules. (Yet another Hamilton first to be so proud of.) If we had used part-time students at non-union rates to run the lifts, those hills would have made money and would today.

Comment edited by CharlesBall on 2016-03-03 15:21:37

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By mountain66 (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 16:25:41 in reply to Comment 116771

I skied there and 2 of my children are old enough to have learned to ski there. It is an over simplification to blame labour costs. In my opinion here is a list of it's short comings: 1: Chedoke lacked free running water or a pond for snow making and had to use city water, the only hill I know of using city water. 2: Short steep runs and a lack of variety. The Nancy Greene run was good for 2 turns maybe and then you were at the lift for the beginner hill. The run on the back was not bad but the lift was usually broken or not enough snow. 3: Antiquated lifts and snow making, it would have required an very large investment to improve them but even then it would have been limited by the terrain. 4: There always seemed to be an effort made to make sure the snow was gone early so golf could start on time. 5: Climate change, my youngest started lessons there the last year it was open, the lessons were postponed several times because there was no snow and it was not cold enough to make snow with the equipment they had. The High Schools used Glenn Eden for ski trips then and it's not far with much better runs.

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By nottoosimple (anonymous) | Posted March 04, 2016 at 08:18:45 in reply to Comment 116778

It was the operating costs that caused the losses that shut it down. Labour costs were the vast majority of the costs. There were people wiling to tale over the facility but the closed shop contract prevented them from hiring non-union workers.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 04, 2016 at 17:44:28 in reply to Comment 116810

Did the golf course have lower operating costs or higher revenue to offset the operating costs or was it just something city staff were more willing to lose money on?

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:39:36

and while we're at it, can someone please explain why amazing local restaurants haven't been asked to bid on operating at the Chedoke club House??

Renovate it, and put in a fantastic spot with lower patio and rooftop patio overlooking the city. It's a fantastic location and right now all you can get is greasy fries and sit outside on plastic chairs.

Spend some time this summer at Niagara region parks and look at all the amazing dining options with scenic views of the lake, escarpment and Niagara River operated by Niagara Parks.

Sam Lawrence, Chedoke Golf, Dundurn coach house. Amazing opportunities to bring great dining experiences in beautiful settings that will draw more people than just golfers or castle visitors etc......

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By highasageorgiapine (registered) | Posted March 04, 2016 at 09:26:59 in reply to Comment 116773

the city could make a killing from this alone

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By Hear Hear (anonymous) | Posted March 04, 2016 at 00:26:51 in reply to Comment 116773

You're dead on here Jason. It could easily have the nicest "patio" in Hamilton bar none!
(And, we'd all get good exercise walking up the hill to get to it.)

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 17:18:57 in reply to Comment 116773

Good idea.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:50:52 in reply to Comment 116773

What a true gem that would be - and a money maker - particularly if people walking or biking along the rail trail could use it. It would be packed.

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By stone (registered) | Posted March 05, 2016 at 23:42:00

It's amazing how fast the city is willing to to consider selling off public housing in the West Harbour yet the idea of maybe selling off half of Chedoke(which would still leave a full 18 holes) never comes up.

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By Pete Smaluck (anonymous) | Posted March 06, 2016 at 14:06:38

I've been a Martin member the past two years. I live in the downtown core, and don't own a car. I store my clubs at the course and bike there after work multiple nights a week to enjoy a twilight round. To me Chedoke is one of the crown jewels of Hamilton. A Stanley Thompson designed course with a rich history. My grandfather and father were both members. I understand that it's losing money annually, which doesn't make it monetarily sustainable, but for golfers and outdoor enthusiast it's a spectacular place. One of the best sunsets in the city. Just wanted to show my support. Zachary Spicer, you should join me for a couple rounds at the course this summer, just to see what the city would be losing if it gave up the land for development.

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted March 09, 2016 at 05:09:55

Sammy wants to invest millions and bring the Canadian Open to Kings Forest permanently. Apparently he has not heard from you folks yet

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted March 09, 2016 at 08:16:21 in reply to Comment 116918

I'm all for the golf courses but Merulla is talking out of his ass.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted March 13, 2016 at 01:06:53

oponents like Johnson present an interesting argument, but one that I don't find particularly convincing. We need to be clear about the goals of local recreation programming. One would think the goal would be to encourage physical activity, rather than being a type of redistribution program.

this argument falls on its face, in my opinion.lots of public facilities encourage physical activity that just wouldn't happen if it had to be done at a private facility where the user fees have to fully cover the cost of the facility - and we would lose out in terms of the health impacts of these barriers.

As soon as you make this argument about other services it falls apart, because almost anything the government does can be described in some way as a redistribution program. That's what public services are!

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