June 10, 2010

Sligo Creek Golf Course debate growing louder as June 30 deadline nears

In the mostly public and usually loud debate over Sligo Creek Golf Course, things have quieted down in the eight months since County Executive Isiah Leggett found $150,000 in county funds to keep the course open. But with the county council's attention shifting from a dismal budget process to upcoming elections and with the appropriation set to expire June 30, back-room discussions regarding the future of the neighborhood nine-hole course in Silver Spring are getting louder.

"We're pretty energized, and there have been people anxious about that June 30 date and chomping at the bit to picket somebody," said Woody Brosnan, who is on the board of directors for Sligo Creek Golf Association, a group of residents dedicated to keeping the course open. "But it's kind of difficult to know [what the issues are] with this murky legal situation that isn't being explained to you and we aren't a part of."

As of Monday, the June 30 date appears not to be an issue. Keith Miller, executive director of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, the operator of the course, told The Gazette Monday that his agency and the Montgomery County Department of Parks, the landowner, had reached an interim agreement to keep the course open through November. That announcement came about a week after Brosnan and other members of the Sligo Creek Golf Association met with Leggett (D), who assured them the course would remain open beyond June 30, the expiration date for the $150,000 appropriation that Leggett proposed and the Montgomery County Council approved last fall.

With rounds up at all nine Revenue Authority-operated golf courses this year, Sligo Creek, a nine-hole course, will have enough revenue to make it through the end of the season, Miller said. But what happens in November is still uncertain. The Revenue Authority and the Montgomery County Department of Parks, which owns the land, are working on a long-term operating agreement for the next one to two years, Miller said. The deal would allow the Revenue Authority to operate the course much in the same way it does now, paying for maintenance and daily operations but not capital improvements, said Mary Bradford, the parks department's director.

"It's in our best interest to continue the current operating agreement, because we don't have the money to maintain that as a park," Bradford said.

Of a timetable for a finalized long-term agreement, Miller said "we were hoping to have it done already." The Revenue Authority, a for-profit agency, must gain approval from its bank, M&T Bank, before entering an agreement to operate the course, Miller said. The deal has stalled over a complicated legal and financial conflict that amounts to M&T Bank needing assurance that if the Revenue Authority takes on Sligo Creek any longer, the Revenue Authority can still pay off a $25 million bond taken on in 2006 when it originally leased four Parks-owned golf courses to join the five it already owned and operated, Miller said.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin speculated the county's somewhat perilous AAA bond rating from bond-rating agency Moody's, which put the county on its "watch list" in April, may have given M&T trepidation.

As a result, a report by the Sligo Creek Golf Course Task Force, a group of county officials and residents charged with determining a financially self-sustaining model for the Silver Spring course that met weekly for three months, has been gathering dust since it was submitted to the county council in January. The report recommends that operation of the course be put out to bid to private operators through a request-for-proposal process. That way the operator would pay for capital improvements at Sligo Creek that other agencies have been unwilling to fund and which could reach up to $2 million, the task force report says.

Council President Nancy Floreen has the power to call the report for a council work session and eventual vote but has not yet done so. "We've been waiting for some information from the Revenue Authority, which has been delayed and delayed. And we expect it to be coming pretty soon," said Floreen (D-At-large) of Garrett Park.

With elections looming this fall, Ervin said it's possible that the political nature of the course could contribute to the task force report not being reviewed. Residents have loudly opposed the closing of the course, originally scheduled for Oct. 1, 2009, before Leggett's appropriation, and much of the Revenue Authority's methods in operating the course, including a 2007 attempt to spend $5 million on a driving range and miniature golf course at Sligo Creek.

But to open the course to private operators, some council members would go against the lease they approved in 2006, stating it was in the county's best interest to have just one public golf course operator, Ervin said. In approving Leggett's $150,000 appropriation proposal, the council has already back-tracked on its position to not use taxpayer dollars to pay for golf.

"Many people believe that if it's put on the agenda before the election, they will be put in a position to make a decision on this," said Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring. Floreen, along with Councilmen George L. Leventhal, Phillip M. Andrews and Michael J. Knapp, were members of that council.

"Most of the council would rather find a way to keep the course open in the interim and decide after a new council is seated," Ervin said. "Just like the old council made the decision for us, we don't want to make a decision for the council that isn't here yet."

That original lease also took a hit from Annapolis this year, when Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Rockville passed a bill in the General Assembly that would prohibit the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission from entering into any lease that allows a third party to close a facility on M-NCPPC-owned land and prevent it from competing with other M-NCPPC facilities. The bill was backed by an opinion from by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

As politics, financial conflict and negotiations swirl around the course, from the first tee to the ninth green all is well, Brosnan said. While usage statistics are not yet available this year, the course has at least received more attention in the aftermath of its near closure, Brosnan said. About 40 employees of the Food and Drug Administration have initiated a weekly league. A $1,500 donation from the Sligo Creek Golf Association brought the First Tee of Montgomery County, an instructional program for low-income youth and beginners to the sport, back to Sligo Creek after it had left the course. The Revenue Authority has organized volunteer days to help maintain the course. And the newly formed Sligo Creek Golf Club will organize future volunteer days and fundraisers. SOURCE: Gazette

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