Why did the Board of Trustees of Aurora University decide to suspend operation ofthe GWC golf course this spring?
The course has lost significant amounts of money in recent years, including $80,000 in 2011. Projections indicated that we could lose as much as $100,000 in 2012. This spring, the trustees decided that the institution could no longer afford these losses.
Course patrons received a mailing about the 2012 season in early February. Several weeks later, they were sent a second mailing regarding the suspension of course operations. Why did this happen?
This was a mistake on our part. Trustees were still considering their options when the first mailing was sent. Personnel on the GWC campus, responsible for the first mailing, were not aware of those discussions and assumed that the course would operate as usual. We apologize for this breakdown in internal communication and are sorry about the mixed message.
Why weren't supporters of the course asked to make donations in order to keep the course open?
Over the past 12 years, the university has explored contributions in support of the course with a number of prospective donors. One year, for example, members were invited to purchase bricks as part of a course fundraiser. The response was minimal. Overall support for golf is declining. We were not optimistic that a fundraising effort would be successful, based upon prior experiences.
Given the size of the operating deficits, we would need to identify a number of major donors (willing to commit recurrent annual gifts of $25,000 or more) to keep the course viable. This is the kind of fundraising effort that we mount each year in support of the Musicby the Lake festival. We literally must raise over $600,000 per year for the festival to break even. We simply are not in a place to attempt another such effort and do not believe it would succeed.
Why not simply raise the cost of play on the course to cover the operating loss?
Over the years, we've found that patrons of the course are not, as a group, in a position to absorb large cost increases. When we attempted a modest increase for the current year, members raised significant concerns about our action. This caused us to believe that yearly increases were not a viable option.
Are there other costs associated with operating the course?
Yes. In addition to the annual operating expenses of the course – some of which are offset by earned revenue – the course receives support through the university's capital budget. Much of the equipment used to maintain the course is in need of replacement. The course's current watering system was installed in 1993 and will eventually need to be replaced.
What has the university done to try to preserve the course?
Since 2000, the university has sought counsel from several prominent golf course consulting firms. Several years ago, for instance, one company prepared a long list of recommendations about making the course more viable. Some of the proposed changes required large investments. Others, such as developing a well-lit driving range, would have been problematic given the proximity of Yerkes Observatory.
What about leasing the course to another operator?
We've looked into this several times. One option may be to preserve the current back nine as a kind of executive nine-hole facility that would cater to the needs of learners, families and some of our current patrons. We are actively pursuing this possibility right now. Some changes will be required to accommodate such an option. In addition, we would have to find dollars to invest in capital improvements required for such an operation.
What about the original land donation that made development of the facility possible? Does the university have a continuing obligation to operate a course as a service to the community?
We are quite mindful of preserving historic features of our campus. In a few weeks, we will complete the renovation of the historic Mabel Cratty Building, a gift to George Williams from the National Board of the YWCA in 1926. We have invested over $750,000 of university funds in this $1.1 million project. The remaining dollars were secured from foundation and individual donors.
The Cratty project is instructive. Since 2000, AU has invested over $15 million in campus improvements. About one third of this total was earned via fundraising activities. The remainder came from university coffers. At present, we confront needs to renovate a number of historic buildings on the main campus, including the dining hall complex and the administration building. Estimates place the cost of this work at over $5 million.
It is precisely because we value our history that we work so hard to keep the campus moving forward as an educational institution. We are focusing most of our attention on supporting programs that bear academic credit as a way of creating a viable future for George Williams College. This causes us to prioritize support of those parts of the operation that benefit students directly as well as those auxiliary activities that have a learning focus.
Our research convinces us that GWC must offer tuition-funded programming to succeed in the long run. This is also the mission that distinguishes the campus from many other profit and nonprofit entities around the lake. We are working hard to develop a strong educational emphasis in our hospitality program too. All of this is part of fulfilling the commitments made by our founders and those, such as S.B. Chapin, who were trustees of George Williams College.
Does the university have plans for the upper campus?
As indicated above, we are actively exploring development of a nine-hole course at the present. We also are making plans to develop a community garden somewhere on the upper campus. As we investigate these possibilities, we will maintain existing features to preserve all of our options for next season. Our course will not look like the Hillmoor facility in Lake Geneva. We have no plans to sell any of this land and are mindful of the obligations imposed by the proximity of Yerkes Observatory.
What can friends of the course and GWC do to help?
We hope that people will give us time to find a solution. As we work through the various possibilities, we simply cannot afford to lose another $100,000. In spite of all of the publicity surrounding our recent decision, no one has come forward with an offer to fund the operating deficit this year in order to keep the course open. This is indicative of the problem we are confronting. Our goal is to find a way to make the operation itself viable, rather than to rely upon charitable giving to keep the course going.
Some have suggested that the university and its president are somehow hostile to the course. This isn't true at all. We have tried to find solutions in recent years and have held widespread conversations to this effect. Ultimately, however, the university must be financially responsible. We must pay our bills and must finish each fiscal year in the black. Each year, for the last twelve years, this has meant funding a significant portion of the GWC operation with dollars generated in Aurora. This is one measure of our commitment to the Williams Bay campus.
For GWC to have a sustainable future, the operation must become self-sufficient. This is our goal. We are dedicating 110% of our effort to achieving this purpose.