CA's golf courses are short on green

Pair of money-losing facilities facing council review

February 13, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Another two of the Columbia Association's money-losing facilities are about to come under review by the city's elected council, as the debate continues over how to address rising costs and stagnant income.

Fairway Hills and Hobbit's Glen golf courses have lost a combined $3.9 million over the past five years, prompting an internal staff evaluation of whether they have performed as well as expected.

While the losses piled up in Columbia, county officials announced support for building a $8.6 million course in western Howard in what has been called an "undersupplied" market. That course, the county's second, is to be self-supporting from user fees.

Since opening in 1995 amid debates about cost and environmental concerns, Fairway Hills alone has lost more than $2.2 million. Next fiscal year, which begins May 1, the course is projected to lose $430,000, according to the Columbia Association's preliminary budget.

"This would be a slam dunk thing for either the county government or a private entrepreneur [to turn around]," said Donald Dunn, chairman of the Howard County Golf Advisory Commission, president of the county golfers association and a supporter of both courses. "It would be a no-brainer."

Dunn said one way for the Columbia Association to make more money at Fairway Hills would be to open earlier, close later and offer more "flexible" rates.

"I'd love to be a partner at one of these golf courses," said Dunn. "Get a group together and take it off their hands."

Rob Goldman, vice president of sport and fitness for the Columbia Association, said at a recent Columbia Council budget work session that steps have been taken to increase play at Fairway Hills, including aggressive marketing and new player programs.

"It's beneficial to the overall financial picture of Columbia to have built this course," said Goldman.

The course fell short of its projected income from fees by $29,000 last year because the Columbia Association overestimated an increase in the number of rounds played by 4,000 -- or 200 percent.

The Fairway Hills project has been controversial from the start. It was tabled in 1987 because of cost, and then approved narrowly six years later by the Columbia Council.

When the course opened in 1995, Roy T. Lyons, then a Columbia councilman and leader of the county golfers association, said it would be "one of the best payoffs CA has had."

Some council members are wondering when that's going to become the case.

Earl Jones, Oakland Mills' representative on the 10-member council, is concerned about investing more money in Fairway Hills before its bottom line improves. Columbia Association staff members have recommended more than $100,000 in capital expenditures for Fairway Hills in fiscal year 2001.

"I think we all love golf," said Jones. "A community like this needs golf courses, but if you can't support it you probably ought to just have one."

Hobbit's Glen, which was built by the Rouse Co., opened in 1967 as the Columbia Association's first facility. It had 71,000 uses in fiscal year 1999, about 73 percent of which were by residents, compared with 53,000 for Fairway Hills, about 64 percent of which were by Columbians.

This will mark the third consecutive year in which Hobbit's Glen has sponsored the State Farm Senior Classic. Last year, the tournament brought the Columbia Association a net profit of $39,000.

Association officials point out that, before factoring in interest, depreciation and fixed costs, both golf courses have a positive net from operations.

The association's administrative expenses are divided among all of its facilities and programs.

Dunn, who lobbied to have Fairway Hills built, said that has to be taken into account when weighing the courses' overall success.

"The allocation of [the Columbia Association's] overhead is always going to be a significant problem for them," he said, "because they're like Atlas, they're carrying the weight of CA on their back."

To keep the cost down for users, the association subsidizes most facilities to varying degrees. At Fairway Hills, the subsidy per resident use is $7.52. At Hobbit's Glen, it is $2.90, according to association estimates for fiscal year 1999.

Meanwhile, County Executive James N. Robey announced support in November for a golf course in western Howard across from the county fairgrounds, south of Route 144.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said at the time that the state -- and the Baltimore metropolitan area -- is "undersupplied" with courses.

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