The Columbia Association (CA) is considering building a multimillion-dollar recreational club in River Hill village within three years, intended to capture the growing market in western Howard County as well as in western parts of Columbia.
The projected $5 million club would relieve crowding at the association's two fitness clubs and position CA to corner an untapped market in largely affluent western Howard, said CA's director of membership services, Robert Goldman.
But the nonprofit association would ask the Columbia Council to approve a River Hill facility -- possibly as early as the 1997-1998 budget year -- only if it could be supported financially by Columbia residents, he said.
"Our mission is to serve Columbia residents," Mr. Goldman said. "We'd never rely on non-Columbia demand to build."
However, council members and residents critical of CA's spending are wary about building a new club that would add to the association's $90 million debt and perhaps benefit non-Columbia residents as much as residents.
About 25 percent of CA's $35.7 million in projected revenue for 1995-1996 goes toward paying interest expenses for facilities, a figure that has dropped from nearly 30 percent four years ago. Debt is projected to peak at $90.4 million in fiscal 1998, then begin decreasing.
"We ought to cut up CA's credit card until we get the debt down," said Robert Cowan, a Hickory Ridge village resident who has urged the council to carefully evaluate new projects. "It would be a great idea, but we just can't afford it right now."
The facility would be built at the future River Hill village center at the intersection of Route 108 and relocated Route 32, the westernmost point of Columbia where the planned community meets Clarksville.
The council approved $5,000 in the association's 1995-1996 capital budget Monday to do a market survey and develop a concept plan for the facility.
Association officials say a new athletic club could be a money-maker and fulfill a need for residents in Columbia's western reaches.
Mr. Goldman noted that the association's two fitness clubs -- the Athletic Club in Harper's Choice village and the Supreme Sports Club in Owen Brown village -- are profitable and together will record about 1 million visits this fiscal year.
Meanwhile, as Columbia's population grows, recreational memberships keep increasing, from 15,600 to 18,800 over the last five years, CA budget documents show. Non-Columbia residents pay higher rates to join facilities.
CA, which runs Columbia's recreational facilities at the council's direction, collects about half its revenue from fees, including recreational memberships, and the other half from an annual property levy.
The association wouldn't recommend a River Hill facility unless projections show it would be profitable, covering operating costs and debt expenses within a short period, Mr. Goldman said.
But the demographics in River Hill and western Howard -- a preponderance of high-income families -- are conducive to selling recreational memberships, Mr. Goldman said. River Hill households are projected to increase from about 400 to 1,900 in the next four years.
"If we're at the western edge of town, hopefully we can deter anyone else from building a facility for that part of the county," Mr. Goldman said.
Over the next year, the association and its Health and Fitness Advisory Committee will consider what activities would meet that demand and make a River Hill facility a unique draw.
Council Vice Chairman David W. Berson, River Hill village's representative, said an athletic club in his village would be a good idea if it makes a profit and satisfies residents' desires.
He said he sees no problem aggressively seeking to attract west county residents, provided that non-Columbia residents pay higher rates and that overcrowding doesn't result. And Dina Michels, the River Hill village board vice chairwoman, said a recreational facility could be "terrific" for a community that is isolated geographically from the rest of Columbia.
However, Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia watchdog group, expressed concern that Columbia residents might underwrite a facility that caters largely to non-residents.
"If that's really going to be a lot of the market, I think there would be resistance on the part of a lot of Columbia residents," he said.
In addition to the River Hill site, the association owns five parcels throughout Columbia originally set aside for recreational facilities. A "family fun center" -- batting cages, miniature golf and other games -- has been proposed previously for two of those sites, but rejected by residents.