Golf gaffe

August 02, 1991

Once again, Baltimore city is in a bind that grows out of the secretive machinations of the Schaefer administration. Now, on the heels of a prolonged and costly legal and political battle by the city to regain control of nearly $800,000 raised for the annual Artscape festival, comes the fallout from another blunder.

Six years ago, with the city's golf courses losing money and draining the economy, the Schaefer administration decided to make a deal: It leased the courses for 15 years, at no charge, to the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation. That, in and of itself, was not an imprudent move. But the deal merely required that the corporation make the courses self-supporting -- to ease the city's fiscal burden. There was never a provision for what would happen if the courses made big profits. But they have.

Today, the golf corporation, which runs five city golf courses, is a multimillion-dollar business, and Baltimore golfers don't have to join expensive country clubs to enjoy their sport. But the city, which still owns the property, finds itself cut out of the deal.

Mayor Schmoke, scrounging to run city services on far too few dollars, has suggested that the corporation share some of the profits and said he would use the money to fund Baltimore's beleaguered recreation programs. But Schmoke's appeal to philanthropy doesn't hold much sway with golf corporation bottom-liners who, according to the terms of the lease agreement, don't have to give the city a penny of their profits.

In retrospect, it is clear the city should have considered the possibility that the corporation would become profitable -- and should have made sure it could share in those profits. After all, the golf corporation still uses its relationship with city government, however tenuous, to maintain its tax exempt status with the federal government.

Mayor Schmoke, understandably frustrated, now hints at the possibility of a lawsuit. But that would soak up a lot of city time and talent (read tax dollars), which would be better spent on something the mayor clearly has the power to affect.

A case in point is the Du Burns indoor soccer facility which the city is poised to sell but which, properly managed, also has the potential to reap profits for the city year in and year out. Other recreation programs could eventually provide equally ripe opportunities to reap financial rewards for the city.

The golf program has proven that recreation programs can pay their own way -- and more. Instead of crying over spilled milk, the Schmoke administration would be better off taking the lessons learned from that experience and applying them elsewhere in the city.

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