City scores birdie on golf investments

A golfer watches his tee shot from the first tee at Riverway golf course, which is opening a new clubhouse in May. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
A golfer watches his tee shot from the first tee at Riverway golf course, which is opening a new clubhouse in May.

Thirty years ago, it was a huge swampy peat bog.

Today, it’s the site of Riverway Golf Course, a heavily used civic course that’s just about to unveil a $6.3-million clubhouse capable of handling banquets of up to 204 people.

The new facility is just one of a number of significant investments the City of Burnaby has made in the last couple years to its golf courses, operations which not only add to its parks and recreation offerings, but generate revenue for city coffers.

Its two golf courses, Riverway and Burnaby Mountain, are among the most heavily used in Canada, largely because the prices are modest, said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

Perhaps most impressively, Riverway’s transformation from an old peat bog paid for itself.

The land in the Big Bend area of South Burnaby wasn’t good for much as it wasn’t suitable for agriculture, Corrigan said. 

Instead, city hall mined the peat, selling it for a profit. Then when excavation began for construction of Metrotown shopping centre in the 1980s, the developers were looking for a place to dispose of the fill. 

They paid city hall to dump it at the Riverway site, with the fill being used to shape the fairways, rough and greens of the course itself.

“The golf course was really built for free, because it was all money that was made, so it was a pretty entrepreneurial kind of proposal,” said Corrigan, noting the revenue also helped pay for Eileen Dailly Pool.

“It was a real success from day one,” said David O’Connor, the city’s assistant director of golf operations.

Playing with patience 

The first nine holes were completed in 1993 and the second nine opened in 1995.  

While the major redevelopment of Big Bend into an area of business and industrial parks came afterwards, the two uses have complemented each other well.

“There’s not many people in the business community who don’t notice a golf course when they drive by,” said Corrigan, “and there was a certain attraction to being that close to a beautiful course, even if it was just visually as a part of the development, but I know many of them have used it.”

And while a clubhouse was always in the plans, it took many years to move up the priority list for city capital projects.

In 2006, during the superheated construction climate leading up to the Winter Olympics, the clubhouse was put out to tender but the quotes went well beyond what the city was willing to pay.

So it waited.

A golf clubhouse simply wasn’t a high enough priority to blow the budget, Corrigan said. But when the recession hit a few years ago and construction costs came down, city hall was ready.

Corrigan figures Burnaby saved 15 per cent as a result—”which is not exactly chump change.” 

He noted it’s a strategy for scheduling major civic projects that city hall also used to build the Tommy Douglas Library. A recession is a “good time for us to be spending money and making sure people’s jobs are maintained.”

The new clubhouse, which opens May 1, features a west coast design with large wooden beams and floor-to-ceiling views of the course. In addition to handling banquets and receptions, the building includes a high-end snack bar for golfers on the go, and two large patios.

Amongst municipally owned golf courses in the Lower Mainland, the only similar facility is at Northlands Golf Course in North Vancouver, said O’Connor during a recent tour of the new clubhouse. 

But, he noted, Burnaby is really competing for golfers with both private and public courses.

“To be in the centre of Greater Vancouver and be in the $50 category of green fees, [Riverway] is in a class of its own.”




Come rain or shine

The Riverway clubhouse isn’t the only investment Burnaby has made recently. 

New drainage systems were installed at both city courses at a cost of $1.6 million.

While drainage hardly has the sex appeal of a new clubhouse, or even a new set of clubs, it’ll make a world of difference in the operations of the courses.

O’Connor figures each year previously Riverway lost 80 days of use due to questionable or outright unplayable conditions as a result of our frequent wet weather. It would sometimes take days or weeks for the courses to dry out.

The new drainage system will allow golfers to get back on the course within four hours of a heavy rain, with no standing water to deal with.

Amazingly, thanks to the latest installation technology, the courses never had to close over the one-and-a-half years it took to install the system—there were never more than two holes disrupted at a time, O’Connor said.

“That’s really improved the profitability,” said Corrigan. “That’s an investment that keeps giving back every year—more rounds played and a lot more happy customers because nobody likes to be playing golf up to their ankles in mud.”

The Burnaby Mountain Golf Course, built in 1969, has also recently seen completion of a $3.5-million driving range. 

At 60 stalls over two storeys, with room to store 40 power carts, the structure dwarfs the 20-stall, single-storey structure it replaced.

The demand for driving range space had exceeded supply there for years, O’Connor said. 

“People will only stand in line for so long.”

Not just for golfers

As for the future, O’Connor said the parks department is considering turning the Kensington Pitch-and-Putt into a nine-hole executive course (meaning it’ll have a few more par 3s). 

The idea is to give youth and others just learning the game a transitional place to play before moving onto full-sized courses. It would also be ideal for people who only have a couple of hours to fit in a game.

City hall will start working on design concepts and a feasibility study next year, O’Connor said.

Meanwhile, there are no plans to change the Central Park Pitch-and-Putt, with its “quite unique” setting amongst the cedars. 

Corrigan believes Burnaby invests more in its civic golf courses than most other municipalities do.

“We take a great deal of pride in them and we think that our golf courses are some of the best in the Lower Mainland, competitive with the best of the private golf courses,” he said.

But it’s not all about golfers.

“We look at the facility like the Riverway clubhouse as being not only a golf course facility but a general community facility,” he said, adding there’s a high demand for bookings at Burnaby’s existing venues.

The clubhouse will be run by city hall’s own food services operation, Deer Lake Catering.

“We challenge our staff to be very entrepreneurial and to make sure it’s a profitable venture and I’m pretty sure they’re going to be able to make that happen,” Corrigan said.

They appear to be off to a good start.

It’s not even opened yet and it’s booked 10 big tournaments and a dozen other functions. “We’ve got quite a number of Christmas parties booked already,” said O’Connor.


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