Plan to build health club stirs debate $6 million proposal included in CA's $39 million budget

'Must be out of our minds'

But most members of council support facility for River Hill

March 01, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council this week approved a $39 million budget for next year -- but not before two council members lambasted Columbia leaders over a plan to build a $6 million health club in the planned community's newest area, the Village of River Hill.

"Over the past few weeks, I have received numerous letters and phone calls from lien payers who think that we must be out of our minds to assume $6 million in additional debt," said Roy T. Lyons, who represents the older Long Reach village on the 10-member council.

Norma Rose, who represents another older village, Wilde Lake, added that the new health club would further separate the planned community along economic lines.

"Do you really think this is in the best interest of Columbia?" she asked her fellow council members.

But the majority of the council considers the health club a good idea. They pointed to severe overcrowding at Columbia's two existing health clubs and estimates that the new club eventually would earn profits of $1.1 million a year.

The Columbia Council serves as the governing body for the Columbia Association (CA), the homeowners' association that collects liens from Columbia residents and manages their parks and recreation facilities.

The council usually mainlygoes along with CA staff decisions. But Wednesday night, Mr. Lyons and Ms. Rose said the plan for the athletic club flies in the face of the CA's mission to serve all Columbia residents.

Other parts of the budget debate -- including plans to plant $30,000 worth of trees and flowers along the U.S. 29-Route 175 interchange -- were less contentions contentious.

The council also approved an 11 percent increase raise in funds for CAwages and salaries -- both for raises and new hires -- and approved design funds for an ice rink/miniature golf/batting cage facility in the Village of Harper's Choice.

Overall, the council altered the bottom line of the budget proposed by CA staff by a reduction of only $41,000.

The budget includes $3.7 million in capital projects and $35.1 million in operating expenses for next year.

As for the River Hill health club, the council discussions have focused, in part, on the CA's $90 million debt -- which has saddled the homeowners' group with interest payments of nearly $9 million a year.

Health club detractors are questioning the wisdom of borrowing more.

But the health club plan's supporters say it's "good debt."

That is, revenue from the club would more than cover the interest payments related to the club's debt, according to CA calculations.

In fact, by the year 2006, the River Hill health club will have generated a total of $4.1 million in profits -- after it pays for all its estimated operating costs and debt payments, the CA says.

With those profits, the CA could lower assessments, lower fees or fund new projects, said council Vice Chairman David Berson of River Hill.

Part of the new club's earnings would come from non-Columbia residents using the club. In the year 2001, an estimated 32 percent of club users would be nonresidents, the CA says. That would jump to 37 percent in 2006.

"Making money is not something to be ashamed of," said council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker of the Village of Owen Brown.

Her support of the project followed a pro-health club report last month from the Columbia Council's Financial Advisory Committee.

But Mr. Lyons said the CA first must serve its members -- the residents of Columbia. "It is obvious to me tonight that the almighty dollar has won," he said of the budget vote.

Added Karen Fireman, a financial advisory committee member who is not so supportive of the project as is the rest of the committee: "I'm not sure that the majority of Columbia would be for it."

In Other parts of the budget included:

* $70,000 to design a planned Harper's Choice "SportsPark," which would include an ice rink, about eight batting cages and 36 holes of miniature golf. Hope Sachwald, the village councilwoman, said SportsPark would draw people to the village center, which would lessen the perception of danger there.

* $30,000 that the CA will spend for landscaping at U.S. 29 and Route 175, the north "entrance" of Columbia, for planting holly trees, oriental grasses, day lilies, sedum and golden rain trees, said Fred Pryor, CA's director of open space management at the CA. Color theme: yellow and blue.

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