County Executive Charles I. Ecker is expected to air a report this week that says the demand for golf in Howard County is so intense the government can build public courses in Elkridge and West Friendship.
The courses could draw enough players -- 55,000 rounds a year -- to be fully self-supporting, the study maintains, but self-support would not come cheaply. Greens fees would run $20 to $30 a round.
Even at those prices, county officials worry that the Elkridge course may not pay for itself.
The size and layout of the course is constrained because it is part of a zoning package for 186 town houses and 174 detached houses that cannot be amended. In order for the Elkridge course to become profitable, it would have to be run in conjunction with a second, county-owned course next to West Friendship Park and the county fair grounds, county officials say.
As with Elkridge, the developer of the West Friendship subdivision would donate land on which the county would design and build a golf course. The rolling terrain at the 426-acre West Friendship site is more conducive to a golf course, however, and is unfettered by zoning restrictions.
The county hopes to build a 27-hole course there and offer the same revenue enhancements slated for Elkridge: a 50-station driving range, an 18-hole putting green practice course, and three or four par-three holes that would be used for practice and teaching golf. Greens fees and cart rentals -- at $11 a person -- would be the same at both courses.
At Diamond Ridge, a municipally owned golf course in Baltimore County, the fees are much lower. Diamond Ridge charges $10 a round on weekdays and $12 a round on weekends. Golf cart rentals -- $16 per couple -- are not required. Golfers may walk around the course carrying their own clubs, or they may rent a tow cart for $2.50.
Greens fees at Willow Springs, a privately owned course open to the public in West Friendship, are closer to what the county would charge. Willow Springs charges $16 on week days, $20 on weekends. Cart rentals are $16, but golfers are not required to use them. They may carry their clubs, walk the course with their own tow cart, or rent one for $2.75.
Complicated real estate issues and formidable engineering obstacles at the Elkridge site still need to be resolved, but the county nonetheless hopes to begin construction of an 18-hole course at the Centre 9500 development there in the spring and have the course ready for play in 1995, providing the financing can be worked out.
"The course could have been built three years ago if the county were not concerned about costs," said James M. Irvin, the county public works director. Future school, road and solid waste projects are projected to swell the county's debt to such an extent that there will be little left for anything else. The county is not willing to take money from those projects to construct golf courses or provide subsidies to lower greens fees. The only way the county will finance construction of the golf courses is through a first-ever sale of revenue bonds.
Construction costs at the Elkridge site alone will run about $6 million because of the work needed to convert the sand and gravel site to a championship golf course.
"It's a wonderful location, but a difficult site to work with," Mr. Irvin says.
So difficult, that the county has devoted more time to it than any other project in Howard County, he said. Mr. Irvin and representatives of the budget office, the finance department, and the parks and recreation department have met with the county executive once a week in the last three years to talk about the course.
"There have been many, many problems and complications to overcome," Mr. Irvin said.
Initially, the county expected the developer to build the course as part of the subdivision and give it to the county. Now, the county is having to build the course itself on donated land. In addition to the $6 million construction costs, the county will need an additional $2 million to cover the costs of financing the bond sale and to pay debt service during the construction period.
Debt service on the $8 million bond package could vary from $600,000 to $750,000 a year. Assuming the Elkridge course could generate 55,000 rounds per year as county officials believe, the county would have to charge $11 to $14 a round to pay debt service. Added management and maintenance costs would make greens fees even higher.
County officials are not flinching at the thought of charging $30 a round for greens fees, but they are wincing a little. They doubt they can charge much more than that even in affluent Howard County and still maintain the goal that the links will serve all county residents.
To keep green fees within the $20-to-$30 range, officials plan features that they hope will produce additional revenue. A modest clubhouse would house a pro shop and fast food and beer concession. Golfers would be required to use electric carts to keep play from slowing. Faster play means more rounds. More rounds mean more money.
Revenue needs will also determine the design of the Elkridge course. It has to be challenging enough to attract golfers, but not so challenging as to slow play to the point of jeopardizing the county's 55,000-round annual goal.
"It would be a mid- to upper-level public course -- enough for
interest, but not overwhelming," Mr. Irvin said. Private groups would be able to rent the course for special events, and the county would hope to raise additional income by scheduling various tournaments and charging entry fees.
The county has hired two consultants to help handle the bond sale. One company is experienced in revenue bond offerings, having put together bond deals for the New Orleans aquarium and the Florida Marlins' baseball stadium. The other consultant specializes in golf course marketing, management and construction.
As a condition for offering the bonds, the underwriters are asking the county to pledge to make up any deficit if the courses do not earn enough to repay the bonds with interest. Administration officials estimate the Elkridge course would lose money for the first two years or until the West Friendship course became operational.
The County Council, which must approve bond sales for both the Elkridge and West Friendship courses, told administration officials last week to hold up on West Friendship until more progress is made on the Elkridge site.
The county "is very, very close to having an agreement finalized on the design issues" at the Elkridge site, Mr. Irvin said. He also believes a 30-acre land-swap with the State Highway Administration, which is necessary to build the course, can be negotiated and concluded in time to proceed with spring construction.
Building and maintaining public golf courses is "very important from the county's perspective," Mr. Irvin said. "It is something we need for our social infrastructure. Golf is part of the American fabric."
Everybody -- residents, the administration, and the County Council -- wants a public course, he said, "but we have to really stretch to make it work."