Serving up park funds

The Baltimore Sun

A private group's plans to finance construction of a regional tennis center in Elkridge could help advance county plans to develop the long-planned Troy Hill Regional Park into a community jewel on a historic site.

The land has been used by Europeans since about 1695, historians say, and Revolutionary War figures are thought to have met at a house on the 106-acre tract's highest hill when the property was owned by Col. Thomas Dorsey. The shell of a stone house believed to date from the early 19th century that could become park headquarters now overlooks Interstate 95 at Route 100.

Art Tollick, who leads the Howard County Tennis Patrons, said his group brings a deal any government would have trouble refusing.

"Every other group is saying, 'Come and give us the money,' " the 59-year-old King's Contrivance resident said. "We're saying, 'Work with us and we'll bring the money.' "

If the deal goes through, the county would lease the land to the tennis group. Tollick's group would raise construction funds and pay off the debt through fees charged to players, he said. The $200,000 already raised and about $300,000 more hoped to be raised would go for planning and engineering costs.

County officials also see the park as the logical place to build a large community center for Elkridge. But the economic slump and the need to complete another long-planned regional park and community center in North Laurel will likely delay the $16.9 million Elkridge park.

The current county capital budget calls for spending $3.5 million on Troy Hill park development next fiscal year, with completion in fiscal 2013. That does not include money for the community center, however.

The uncertain funding situation is the reason county and community leaders are supportive of letting Tollick's group begin the project, which is projected to cost $20 million.

"Once they do the road, parking and the tennis facility, we're into the property," said Gary J. Arthur, recreation and parks director. "We saw this as an opportunity to provide a service cheaply, with zero [county] dollars."

Area residents and County Council member Courtney Watson, who represents Elkridge, have complained for years about what they see as inadequate public amenities, so they also welcome Tollick's proposal.

"Elkridge has been the fastest-growing area in the county in the last 10 years," said Watson, a Democrat, adding that plans for expanding the library and building a community center are long overdue.

But residents think the tennis center would also add to the community.

"We see it as something else to draw people to Elkridge - like the [Timbers of Troy] golf course," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association.

Johnson's group has been learning about the idea for the past year, and members have voted to approve it, he said. They want the new park and community center built as soon as possible.

"It is very important to us because if it is not there and we keep developing, it will put a lot more stress on Rockburn [Branch] Park," he said of the community's popular 450-acre park. "We need more facilities already."

Tollick said his group comprises 600 tennis enthusiasts who want to build a $20 million center with 11 indoor courts, 19 outdoors, and stadium seating for 2,000 spectators. The facility would be on 16 acres near the park's planned entrance next to the Troy Hill Corporate Center. If built, he said, it would be the largest facility of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic region.

"They weren't going to build this park for many years, but we want to get going in 2009," Tollick said, though he worries that the global financial crisis could interfere.

Columbia Association facilities and county parks no longer meet the needs of area tennis players, who must go to neighboring counties for court time at peak hours on weekends and evenings, Tollick said.

Tollick said his members believe $20 million for a tennis facility would be money well spent on a popular recreational sport.

"I think it's one sport that's available for a lifetime to people of all ages and abilities," he said. "It only takes two to play."

The Troy Hill land lies between I-95 and U.S. 1, on the north side of Route 100, and has been planned as a park for years. But land acquisition problems and a lack of construction money have delayed things.

The county and state governments have devoted $700,000 to archaeological explorations around the stone house and for hiring an architectural firm to create plans.

The stone house was occupied until 1968, but the interior was destroyed by arson in 1991. The county stabilized the exterior in 1993, installing new interior floor joists, putting on a new roof, and re-pointing the mortar in the stone walls. Long poles brace those walls from the outside, keeping them firmly in place.

The county still hopes to acquire two small residential parcels on the tract, but they won't delay development, Arthur said.

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