City eyes golf funds

Councilman wants more revenue from municipal courses

Fee increase proposed

Links' managers say plan would threaten a successful system

May 28, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In the mid-1980s, Baltimore City's five golf courses were losing a half-million dollars a year. The greens were pocked and pitiful. The courses were ranked among the worst city-owned courses in the nation. Finally, in 1985, Mayor William Donald Schaefer handed the whole mess over to a newly created private company.

Since then, Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp. (BMGC) has improved the courses and lured thousands of golfers, which increased revenues and allowed BMGC to spend $7.2 million to further upgrade the courses and facilities. The result: City golf courses are a very lucrative enterprise.

And now some City Council members want a bigger share of that enterprise.

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a Democrat from East Baltimore's 2nd District, calls it a "no-brainer" that as the golf courses make more money, BMGC should share the wealth with the financially strapped city - though it is under no obligation to do so.

Young, chairman of the council's subcommittee on recreation and parks, has introduced a resolution asking BMGC to raise fees by a few dollars at each course and then increase the amount it contributes to city coffers.

The councilman said he'd like another $100,000 a year from the golf courses. His resolution is likely headed to City Council soon for a vote.

"We're not trying to strong-arm anybody or pressure anybody, but we just want them to recognize that these are city-owned golf courses," Young said. "All I'm trying to do is find revenue."

BMGC is a private, nonprofit company that manages four 18-hole, city-owned courses - at Clifton Park; Forest Park; Mount Pleasant; and Pine Ridge, which is in Baltimore County - and the 12-hole Carroll Park golf course.

When BMGC was created, it received a $500,000 loan from the city, which was paid back quickly as revenues soared. The corporation has not received city funding since.

In 1992, BMGC's board of directors voted to start giving money back to the city. It gave $225,000 that year, and now gives the city about $400,000 a year. The money is sent to the nonprofit Baltimore City Foundation, which distributes most of the funds to the city's Department of Recreation and Parks for youth programs.

But the corporation is under no contractual obligation to give the city any money, and its managers are reluctant to generate more revenue for the city by raising fees, which are already set to increase by a dollar or two.

On Friday, the cost of an 18-hole round of golf on weekends will jump to $22 at Pine Ridge and Mount Pleasant, $18.50 at Clifton Park and Forest Park and $14.50 at Carroll Park. Even with the increases, fees at city courses are among the lowest in the region.

"If the city wants us to raise our rates again, all of a sudden we begin to jeopardize our philosophy, which is to provide affordable golf," said BMGC Executive Director William L. Cook II, who testified May 21 before Young's panel. "We're there for the masses. But if you begin to raise the rates [again], then it becomes more exclusive."

The corporation's board of directors met Tuesday to discuss the city's request for more funds. Cook said he can sympathize with the city's search for revenue but has recommended that his board not agree to an increase in its fees, nor in its annual contributions to the city.

"I can almost assure them that it's not going to happen," he said.

Cook said the golf courses - unlike other city operations run by private firms, such as the Baltimore Zoo - have never asked the city for a subsidy since they went private.

However, Cook said his 10-member board might agree to an alternative request from Young to redirect its $400,000 donation to the 4-year-old Child First Author- ity, a nonprofit foundation that helps inner-city youth.

Young said that fees at city golf courses are lower than fees at some other courses in the area and that increasing fees by a few dollars "will not scare people off."

"I don't think that's unreasonable," he said.

Cook said he disagrees, and maintains that the golf courses won't continue to thrive if they start charging their customers more.

"We need to be the low-cost provider," he said. "We need to be competitive."

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