After 10 years, 'Zombie Links' municipal golf course set to become a reality

March 12, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

In county government circles, it was known as "Zombie Links" -- the golf course that couldn't live and couldn't die.

But when construction begins on Howard County's first municipally owned course Tuesday -- 10 years after officials first proposed it -- the course will become known officially as Timbers at Troy.

The County Council removed a long-standing financial hurdle Friday morning when it unanimously approved the sale of revenue bonds worth $10.7 million to pay for the project.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, surrounded by the five council members, signed the bond bill -- an historic first -- in the council chambers immediately after passage. He did so, he said, so that construction can begin next week.

A ceremonial groundbreaking -- with Mr. Ecker and council members using gold-plated golf clubs to do the spadework -- is set for noon March 20 on a 196-acre site near the Route 100-Interstate 95 interchange.

The county plans to put a 40-station driving range, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse and a 200-space parking lot on the site along with a regulation 18-hole golf course. The first nine holes are expected to be ready for play July 1, 1996. The opening of the second nine is planned for May 1 the following year.

The choice of gold-plated sand wedges as groundbreaking implements seems appropriate for a course that is twice as expensive as planners predicted 10 years ago. But those estimates came before plans were drawn and a site selected.

When Mr. Ecker inherited the project in 1991, he insisted on two things: that the course be built and operated at no cost to taxpayers, and that greens fees average no more than $20 a round.

The County Council gave Mr. Ecker the first part of his wish Friday by approving the county's first sale of revenue bonds. The second part is expected to come next year when the course opens. Greens fees for residents are expected to be less than $20 weekdays and more than that on weekends to achieve the overall average. There will also be a cart rental fee of about $10.

Elected officials expect the $10.7 million construction debt will be covered by greens fees and other revenue generated by the course. The demand for golf is so great, they say, that the county should have no trouble generating the money needed to pay the interest and principal on its 27-year bond obligation.

"I always said that I thought there were better geological sites for a golf course, but I believe this is the best market financially," County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, said after Friday's vote approving the bond sale. "I really think the draw from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties [as well as Howard] will guarantee success. Literally everyone you talk to these days plays golf."

County officials are so sure the money will be there that they guaranteed payment of the principal and interest on the bonds should revenue fall short. Had the county not guaranteed the bonds, it would have had to pay about $300,000 more a year in interest, a Wall Street analyst told council members Friday.

The county is paying 6.27 percent interest on the bonds, but the rate could have been as high as 9.25 percent without the guarantee, the analyst said. The county set aside $852,605 of the bond revenue to pay the first year's interest.

County planners expect the 6,700-yard course to produce a surplus every year, including the first, when it is only a nine-hole operation. Annual surpluses are expected to grow from $7,814 in 1997 to $2.2 million by the year 2005.

Mr. Ecker also calls Timbers at Troy "the course that wouldn't die," but admits he was close to ending the project about a year ago.

"I wrote a letter saying this will not work," he said. But in the end, the parties involved -- state government, county government, the developer, the landowner and a coterie of local golfers -- "cooperated," Mr. Ecker said.

Deputy Public Works Director Alan M. Ferragamo, whom Mr. Ecker credits with getting the various parties to collaborate, says their continued cooperation is essential.

"The worst is behind us, but we still need to be on top of the situation as the county moves from a two-dimensional plan to a three-dimensional reality," he said. "My confidence is strong because the team [that worked on the golf project] is strong."

Although Mr. Ferragamo expects Timbers at Troy "to become a very noteworthy golf course," a wider consequence of the project is that it has heralded the use of revenue bonds as a funding source, he said.

"I just sat through a budget hearing" Thursday night in which people complained about the lack of county financing, he said.

"I think we can look for more opportunities to look for this type of revenue -- recreational facilities, water parks, whatever. We may be coming out of the darkness to something new."

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