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County Parks wins statewide award for Dairy Creek Golf Course turnaround 

Five years ago, Dairy Creek Golf Course was on the verge of collapse.

An unsolvable water shortage at El Chorro Regional Park had turned its fairways brown—driving golfers away and putting the once beloved municipal course on a path to closure.

But instead of throwing in the towel, the San Luis Obispo County Parks and Recreation Department made a commitment to the community: to reinvent the asset and make it a successful—albeit different—place to play golf again.

Years into that work, the results are in. Dairy Creek downsized from an 18- to nine-hole course, but added The Siren Restaurant, an arcade-style driving range called Top Tracer, and other activities, like disc golf, to broaden its appeal.

click to enlarge AWARD WINNERS SLO County Parks and Recreation staff pose for a photo with county supervisors after receiving a statewide award for their work transforming the once-struggling Dairy Creek Golf Course. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • Photo Courtesy Of SLO County
  • AWARD WINNERS SLO County Parks and Recreation staff pose for a photo with county supervisors after receiving a statewide award for their work transforming the once-struggling Dairy Creek Golf Course.

Now, instead of taking nearly $500,000 out of the county's general fund each year to stay afloat, Dairy Creek is producing that much in additional revenue, according to Nick Franco, director of the county Parks and Recreation Department.

"We went from needing that subsidy, to this year, being $400,000 ahead. It's a huge turnaround," Franco told New Times.

On June 21, Dairy Creek's rags to riches story earned some statewide recognition. At a Board of Supervisors meeting, the Parks Department received a California State Association of Counties (CSAC) Challenge Award—one of only 21 handed out across the state this year, out of 433 entries.

"We don't do our work for recognition, we do it because we love what we do, but seeing this actually makes us feel good," Franco said at the award ceremony.

While presenting SLO County with the award, CSAC Executive Director Graham Knaus noted that Dairy Creek is now a model that other struggling municipal golf courses around the country can look to for inspiration.

"Thinking about how a county could transform an underperforming municipal golf course into a diverse recreation center that generates revenue is quite a task, and one this county took on successfully," Knaus said. "Dairy Creek is now an entertainment destination point for county families and friends."

SLO County Golf Course Superintendent Josh Heptig, who traded his usual golf T-shirt and shorts for a suit and tie on June 21, heaped praised onto county staff for their work bringing the new Dairy Creek vision to fruition.

"It's been a struggle. There were days when I personally didn't necessarily want to come to work, trying to figure out how we were going to do this," Heptig said. "When we came up with this harebrained idea of bringing Top Tracer and different elements to the game of golf in our local community, there was no roadmap for it. [Now] we get phone calls almost daily from people across the country asking, 'How do you do this?'"

The SLO County community deserves a lot of credit for Dairy Creek's transformation, Franco added. During 15 public workshops held about the future of the course and park, locals offered their ideas and the best rose to the top, he said.

"That's how all of this came about," Franco told New Times. "We had a problem, we had some ideas, but really, those community workshops, some of which were pretty contentious, were really helpful because they helped solidify what the community wanted."

Dairy Creek and El Chorro will continue to evolve, change, and see new amenities over the next few years. The county recently inked new concession contracts with vendors to build a zipline course and a cluster of camping cabins on the retired sections of the golf course. Those facilities are set to open within the next year, Franco said.

Other long-term projects include a go-kart racetrack and a mini golf course, but the county needs to raise some more money for those additions.

To Franco, the important lesson in the Dairy Creek saga is that municipal golf courses don't necessarily need to compete with private golf courses. They can offer their own unique experiences.

"Counties and cities are struggling with what to do with golf courses. What we are about is, it's a recreational resource," he said. "Don't just abandon it. Treat it like another recreational resource and find a way to make it successful."

Fast fact

• Atascadero's Summer Sizzle Series kicked off on June 29 and is scheduled again for July 6, July 13, and Aug. 3, in Sunken Gardens from 3 to 6 p.m. The Farmers' Market event features live music; food samples from local chefs and restaurants; cider and wine tastings; and FARMstead ED, which showcases the variety of farm tours available to sign up this summer, according to a city press release. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

View Results

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