Valid questions about health club Columbia Association seems little concerned about debt.

March 08, 1996

THOUGH THEY HAD little impact on the final vote, the objections of two Columbia Council members to plans for a $6 million health club in the Village of River Hill had merit. With Howard County officials scrambling for cash, talking about tax hikes or garbage collection fees, it sometimes seems incongruous that Columbia would be considering ways to get deeper into debt. Columbia Association members Roy T. Lyons of Long Reach and Norma Rose of Wilde Lake simply wanted to know if the proposed health club would really be in the best interest of the planned community's residents.

The health club's supporters believe it will, in part because of county government's financial worries. The county is trying to figure out how to make its dollars stretch to provide more recreational opportunities for residents. The health club's proponents are counting on it and other Columbia facilities filling the void. They expect 32 percent of the club's users to be non-Columbia residents by the year 2001 and for that to increase to 37 percent by 2006. If their estimates are correct, the health club will have generated $4.1 million in profits by then. That's money the association can then use to pay for other needs in Columbia.

Those projections sound great, but Mr. Lyons and Ms. Rose wanted the council not only to consider the possible but the actual. The Columbia Association's $90 million debt is not a projection. It's real. That debt requires Columbia homeowners to make interest payments of $9 million a year. It's tough for residents of some of Columbia's older villages, such as Long Reach and Wilde Lake, to accept the association going deeper in debt to add to the attractiveness of a newer village, such as River Hill, when they have some unmet needs as well.

The council should be reminded of that. It should be reminded of the tenuousness of today's revenue sources. Even though the association does not have to provide the numerous services for which Howard County government is responsible, it makes sense to be frugal. The approved River Hill health club seems to be a facility that will actually help the Columbia Association make money. That's good. But council members should not become cavalier about a huge debt that must be reduced. Eventually, sacrifices may have to be made.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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