HST, liquor rules challenge for Ontario golf course owners

JOHN HERBERT, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:20 PM ET

Golf course owners coming to grips with the Harmonized Sales Tax face yet another obstacle as they battle through difficult economic times — the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

The HST will force golfers to pay 8% more on memberships and green fees as of July 1, which could cripple public courses trying to make ends meet.

But just as worrisome for clubs is the warning received this spring from an enforcement officer from the commission.

The clubs must now educate their members and green fee players where they can — or can’t — drink a beer.

For instance, clubs were stunned to learn golfers are not permitted to drink beer on a putting green, the driving range or on grassy areas next to licensed patios, even though golf course playing areas are licenced.

Further, if a golfer has been drinking and takes his open beer to the club parking lot, he could be charged with impaired driving and the club could lose its liquor licence.

At clubs such as Sunningdale or Ingersoll, divided by a roadway, a cart driver who has been drinking could face charges when he enters the road. A person driving a power cart is not allowed to hold an open alcoholic beverage at any time.

Clubs have also been told to build fences dividing patios from the licensed playing areas — the course itself. Some have temporarily roped off designated areas.

The Oaks must place a fence alongside the concrete path from the 15th tee to the green to protect cart drivers from plunging down an embankment into their irrigation pond.

Most club owners fear the consequences, but are reluctant to beef about the liquor inspector visits. One club official wondered how a Richmond Street bar can have an outdoor patio pushing almost into bus lanes with no fence required, while a golf course patio backing onto the course must build a buffer fence.

Some clubs say they have not seen an enforcement officer for years and wonder if visits this spring are fallout from the deaths of three people who drowned a few years ago when their car plunged into a river after consuming alcohol at the Lake Joseph Club in Muskoka.

Enforcement officer John Purvis could not be reached yesterday for comment and did not respond to an e-mail.

Neil Kapp, president of the National Golf Course Owners Association, said its is important for clubs to educate their golfers. Kapp is a partner in the ownership group at East Park, Westminster Trails and Maple Ridge.

“It is our obligation people are not impaired,” Kapp said. “Potentially there is no big issue. We have been reminded about the regulations and we are expected to enforce them ourselves.

“Sometimes we have to remind our customers these are the regulations. Nothing has changed.”

The last two seasons have been difficult for clubs as many have seen membership and green fee play decline. London’s city courses — which have implemented a new business plan to attract more golfers and revenue — barely broke even last year after many years of huge profits which paid for course improvements and construction of River Road Golf Club.

Area courses have also been left to grapple with the pesticide ban, regulations imposed in recent years restricting water usage, a hike in minimum wage causing a chain reaction wage increase for those above minimum wage, the introduction of the HST and now what they believe is over-the-top warnings from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission.

They also worry about the public reporting of health inspections in their kitchens which potentially could cause serious damage to a club’s reputation.

One club complained they were cited with a critical infraction for not having a thermometer in their beer fridge.

Perhaps most damaging to the golf industry will be the HST. Private club members in London will face an additional $300 in membership fees. Public course players could see their dues and green fees increase. Some clubs may reduce their green fees initially as a promotion not to lose play. What choice do they have? Many public courses are already discounting fees and offering hot dogs and soft drinks free.

Dave Mills, executive director of the Golf Association of Ontario, said they notified all clubs in Ontario to prepare for the HST. Many clubs advised members to pay their dues before May 1 to avoid paying the additional tax.

The GAO, which operates 26 tournaments involving 4,500 players, also suggested in e-mails and on their website contestants pay their entry fees ranging from $100-$200 before May 1. If they pay during the HST transition period (May 1-June 30), they would pay a pro-rated HST.

Mills said the HST probably won’t hurt the GAO because they pass on the tax.

“So it doesn’t hit us the same as the golf clubs or the golfers,” he said.

He does worry it will be a financial burden for some clubs and golfers.

“In their businesses, to pay additional taxes when there are rough times; the timing is not great. You could argue the timing is never great to have tax hikes and this is one more thing on top of a tough economy.”

Mills said the GAO and the course owners’ association, as well as other sports groups in Ontario, unsuccessfully lobbied the McGuinty government over the HST.

“I don’t claim to be an expert but part of the argument they (the province) make is in the long term it is better for business. I guess we’ll see.”

john.herbert@sunmedia.ca


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