City needs to stay financial course with its ace golf program

John Steadman

August 21, 1991|By John Steadman

No group was more deprived than Baltimore City golfers. It was that way for years, even decades, a deplorable time when they paid fees to play the public courses, were subjected to inferior conditions and got little consideration.

Pine Ridge, Mount Pleasant, Clifton Park, Forest Park and Carroll Park were decent enough facilities but maintenance was hit-or-miss. Minimal at best. The city administrations, then as now, lacked funds to keep them in first-rate condition. Doug Tawney, then the director of Parks and Recreation, was a miracle worker in stretching what little money was available.

The golfers kept playing and the situation compounded itself. At times, the courses resembled the city dump. Poor greens, tees with more raw dirt than grass, broken ball washers and debris, including empty bottles and cans, strewn about the fairways and roughs. William Donald Schaefer, then the mayor of Baltimore, realized something positive needed to be done.

Every year, the courses were losing heavily, up to $500,000 annually, and improvements were nonexistent. Then Schaefer, in 1985, decided the indebtedness had to end. Players were complaining, and rightly so, about how little they were getting in return from the city.

Finally, the golfers, for the most part citizens of Baltimore, got what they deserved. A first-class operation. The money they were spending to play the courses was taken away from the general fund and directly funneled toward rehabilitation of the courses.

A non-profit group, the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., headed by Henry Miller, chairman of the board, took control and instituted changes the city couldn't have afforded or implemented. Miller and his associates, along with the executives he hired, such as William Cook, Russell Bateman and others, have earned national acclaim for the job they've done.

Last year, the corporation made $800,000, thanks to a record number of golfers. That profit, as in the past, will go back into the courses to keep them smart, stylish and not something resembling the former trash heaps. Apparently, the city fathers aren't aware of the outstanding job Miller and his associates have produced in their behalf.

Now Mayor Kurt Schmoke wants the corporation to share some of the financial fruits of its labors, allocating a portion to maintaining recreation centers. This is the wrong way to go. The mayor should encourage the corporation to continue as is and offer praise for an extraordinary performance. The original 15-year golf lease has nine years remaining and if Schmoke wants to abrogate the agreement Schaefer signed then he's going to be in for a court fight -- plus having to put up with unhappy golfers among his constituency.

"Should the mayor institute legal action against the corporation," NTC said Miller, "we would be forced into hiring costly legal counsel. This unfortunate consequence would result in the depletion of funds from the city and the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp. Everyone familiar with the contract knows we are on solid legal ground."

At present, Miller has ideas for plans that will help junior golf. He wants to build a four-hole training course where children can learn the game and also wants special accommodations for the handicapped, some from Montebello State Hospital, to offer them the opportunity to enjoy golf.

The city's five public courses are ahead of last year's pace, which is astonishing. "That's one of the most amazing things," Miller said. "How is it happening? Well, so far, we have been blessed with some wonderful weather on weekends, few rain delays or washouts of play. If that keeps up and we have a mild fall and winter it may be we will exceed 1990 in the number of rounds played and receipts. But nature, as it always does, will determine that."

Bottom line: The city proved beyond even a reasonable doubt it was inept at running golf courses, red ink and all. Then came a new concept, a corporation made up of area citizens, with the dedication and know-how to improve all facets of public golf. The city got off the hook for having to pay for it and the golfers finally got the upgraded courses they deserved.

A pride has come to Baltimore public golf that was nonexistent six years ago. To let the city take over what was once a debacle and get its hands on money that belongs to the golf corporation would be reverting into the gloom and doom of how it used to be.

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