Public golf course bonds are teed up for approval

January 01, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The county is "paying too much" for the public golf course it plans to build this year on a 200-acre site near Interstate 95 and Route 100, but is "in too deep to walk away from it," County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga said last week.

"The votes [on the council] are there to go ahead with the golf course, but only if it's not one dollar more than we talked about," he said.

What worries him and other members of the council is the project's $10.7 million cost -- more than double the maximum amount projected eight years ago when the county agreed to build its first publicly owned gold course.

The new cost includes $7.49 million to build the course and $3.21 million to pay the principal and interest for the first two years on 20-year revenue bonds that would be used to fund the project.

In an important step Tuesday night, the council is expected to vote 4-1 to guarantee that interest on the bonds will be paid even if revenues from golfers fall short.

The vote would clear the way for the sale of bonds in March and let the county complete the project by May 1, 1997, a target set by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

The guarantee will enable the county to sell bonds at an interest rate 2 percent to 3 percent lower than without a guarantee, making it possible for the county to finance the project through golfing revenues.

Although council members appear ready to go along with the administration's funding plans, they worry that the project may not pay for itself through golfers' fees.

"I keep hearing rumors that we are going to subsidize a golf course," said Mr. Feaga, a 5th District Republican. "I don't want to subsidize a golf course. There is no way the county should ever subsidize a golf course."

In an effort to allay those fears, administration officials will meet with council members Jan. 11 to assure them that no tax money will be needed to build and operate the course.

"Everything is finally falling in place," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director. "We've had many problems, and they've all been overcome."

The only obstacle left, he said, is a bad bond market in which interest rates would be too high, something he thinks is unlikely. Barring that, he expects the council to approve bond financing March 6.

If so, bulldozers should begin moving 220,000 cubic feet of earth onto the mostly sand and gravel site by mid-March, said Deputy Public Works Director Alan M. Ferragamo, the county official most responsible for bringing the course to fruition.

Mr. Ferragamo expects the first nine holes of the 18-hole regulation course to open July 1, 1996, and the second nine holes to open May 1 the following year. He expects the course to be fully self-supporting within two years after its opening.

There are three other courses in the county -- Hobbit's Glen and Turf Valley, which are private, and Willow Springs, which is open to the public, though privately owned and maintained.

Although council members generally favor building the Centre 9500 golf course, they have some last-minute jitters about the funding and the projected revenues.

"The course has got to pay for itself," said Councilman Dennis Schrader, a 3rd District Republican. "If the numbers make sense, then there is a public basis" for building the course.

In order to make the course pay for itself, golfers will have to play 52,000 rounds a year at an average of $20 a round plus $10 for cart rental, Mr. Ferragamo estimates.

Mr. Feaga warns that the county cannot charge more than that and still operate the course at a profit.

"If it's any more, people simply won't play," he said. Even those fees would make Howard County's the most expensive public course in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Councilman Darrel Drown, a 1st District Republican, and Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a 4th District Democrat, say the county has committed itself to the project through a zoning decision approved by the previous council and should not renege.

"We have to act in good faith," Mr. Drown said. "It's much more expensive than predicted, but a lower bond rate allows us the flexibility to build the kind of course we need out there and still have it self-supporting."

Ms. Lorsung said that it "does not send a good message to people to make a solid commitment and not follow through."

The only negative vote is likely to come from Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a 2nd District Democrat, who opposes having the county guarantee the bonds.

"Getting a lower interest rate is not a compelling enough reason," he said. "I am concerned that it sets a precedent not only for this course, but other [public] courses as well."

Mr. Gray also wants to know more about the county's "risks and liabilities," since the course would be built by a private firm on public land.

"I want the county to be protected," he said. "Suits may be brought during construction."

Donald Dunn, founder of the Howard County Golfers' Association, thinks the concerns raised by council members can be overcome.

He is confident that the course will pay for itself. Mr. Dunn says he already pays $55 a round at Hobbit's Glen Golf Course in Columbia and thinks the Centre 9500 course would be comparable.

Mr. Dunn also said that equivalent public courses in Baltimore County attract 82,000 rounds a year and called the county's projection of 52,000 rounds conservative.

The existing public course "is a fine course but is nonregulation," he said.

The planned public golf course "is a minor attempt to remedy a horrific situation" in which an "exploding population of 17,000 county golfers" don't have enough courses to play, he said.

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