By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Montgomery County Revenue Authority plans to ask the county's Park and Planning agency to allow it to back out of a lease deal at Sligo Creek Golf Course, saying that unless it can build a driving range at the site, the finances won't work.
The revenue authority has also entered into talks with the city of Rockville about possibly taking over operations at its RedGate Golf Course.
The moves have sparked concern among golfers and some local officials, who are questioning whether employees are being well treated, whether the deals would be good policy and what the government's role should be in supporting public recreation. Complaints have been made about excessive secrecy in the deals, although officials involved in the discussions say those are unfair.
The latest turn in the story of how Montgomery is managing its 10 county golf courses has it roots in discussions three years ago, when the Park and Planning Department began a closed-door process that led to a decision to lease its four courses to the revenue authority. The park-system golf courses were bleeding money, parks officials said at the time, without offering details.
The revenue authority, a quasi-public agency that pays its way without county funds, could run the courses more efficiently, parks officials said. Revenue authority and parks officials said they thought the agency could achieve more efficiency by merging the four courses with the revenue authority's operation of five others.
But at Sligo, a nine-hole course just inside the Capital Beltway, the revenue authority bumped into community resistance to its proposal to open a driving range with lights for night operation. Without the lights, the revenue authority said, the course could not generate enough revenue to pay for itself.
The 50-year-old course, beloved by its clientele, won the National Golf Foundation's award in 2007 for most-improved customer loyalty.
Mary Bradford, who heads the county's park system, which would have to take back operations at Sligo, said many options are possible, including continuing to run it as a golf course. She acknowledged that a no-compete clause in the lease with the revenue authority could preclude that, but she said she is waiting for clarification from the parks agencies' attorneys.
"There absolutely has been no decision on future use," she said. "We are still looking at it." The Planning Board is scheduled to discuss the course's future Feb. 26.
Revenue authority Executive Director Keith Miller said the three other park-system golf courses that the revenue authority has leased -- Little Bennett, Needwood and Northwest -- have done well financially and are not likely to be returned to the park system.
Byrne Peake, a Sligo golfer and president of the Woodmoor-Pinecrest Civic Association near the golf course, said he and others on a task force convened by Miller had come up with other options they said could help generate revenue at Sligo. But Miller said their plans wouldn't work.
About the same time the revenue authority decided to give up on Sligo, Rockville officials decided they wanted out of the golf business. Several weeks ago, city officials quietly asked the revenue authority to look at taking over operations of its RedGate course, which Mayor Susan Hoffmann said loses about $250,000 a year.
That has led to complaints by at least one City Council member, Anne Robbins, who said the decision should have been reached in a more open setting (a vote to pursue the deal was taken in closed session). She also said she thought longtime employees were being treated poorly by city officials.
"A major change such as this should have community involvement with the stakeholders," Robbins said, as she circulated several e-mails about the golf course proposal.
"There should be a public hearing or an informational meeting that lets the community know what is going on," she said. She persuaded her council colleagues and the mayor Monday night to schedule a hearing, which probably will take place in the next several weeks, she said.
Council member Phyllis Marcuccio said before the council session that she was concerned about a diminished government role in supporting public recreation and that the potential leasing of RedGate to the revenue authority should be delayed until city officials could hammer out a policy on what forms of recreation they are willing to subsidize.
"It is a recreational facility," said David Hirshfeld of Potomac, a RedGate regular. "They have other parks and recreational facilities that are not put to the profit test."
Hoffmann said other recreation facilities do not make money or break even, including the city's swimming pools.
The cost to run and maintain a golf course is usually higher than other recreational facilities, said council member Piotr Gajewski. It is fiscally prudent, he said, for the city to examine the possibility of having the revenue authority run RedGate.
A similar debate occurred three years ago, when the Park and Planning Department discussed whether it should remain in the golf business. It decided to transfer operations of its four courses to the revenue authority but retain ownership.
The Planning Board's former general counsel, Michele Rosenfeld, said repeatedly then that the deal was a bad one for the Park and Planning Department and raised questions about the agency's commitment to public recreation. Board member Meredith Wellington voted against the lease deal, and board member Allison Bryant abstained, both saying that they had been kept out of the loop and had too little time to analyze the deal.
Hirshfeld said before Monday's Rockville council meeting that there is risk in allowing a county agency to hold a monopoly on government-owned public golf courses. A little competition can be healthy, he said.
"My experience . . . has led me to believe that [Montgomery's] behavior with respect to golf wouldn't be different from any other monopolist," said Hirshfeld, an oil economics expert.
Mark Suffanti, a Sligo golfer, said he has spent many hours analyzing financial documents that he said strongly suggest that the Park and Planning Department got a bad deal, and he said the RedGate deal should be scrutinized closely. Suffanti, a Silver Spring resident, said his analysis suggests that in a few years, if the lease arrangement continues, the revenue authority might no longer be required to make any rent payments. It will depend on how much money the revenue authority is able to earn from the courses.
And he questioned the government's role in supporting recreation, as well as the tendency of public officials to discuss details of deals in private.
"When public facilities come under the aegis of the revenue authority, it appears to be an inherent requirement that they be profitable. Somehow golf is different from tennis or a soccer field or an ice rink," he said.