Their Good Walk, Ruined?
Md. Golf Course's Fans Fight Planned Closing
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Tucked just inside the Beltway, the rolling hills of Sligo Creek Golf Course are a welcoming oasis for women, seniors and beginners. The unhurried, convivial course, sandwiched among leafy Silver Spring neighborhoods, also has long attracted a large contingent of minority golfers. For many, Sligo's nine holes provide a friendly alternative to less welcoming private country clubs.
But Sligo's loyal following is facing some unhappy news. Montgomery County plans to close the course Oct. 1, saying it can no longer sustain it. County officials are looking into converting it into something else: a park, a sports field, a disc golf course or perhaps a nature center. The decision to close, rooted in a deal approved three years ago by the County Council and the planning board, has unleashed a torrent of allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance and hints of racial and economic discrimination.
"You could single out any part of our park system in isolation, or for that matter our government, and claim it does not make a profit," said Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D), who represents the area in the state legislature. Golf, he noted, "was once viewed as an exclusive enclave of the upper classes. The image of golf and that of Montgomery matches much better with the reality of a diverse community and the need to be inclusive," he said at a recent planning board hearing.
Sligo's fans say that the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which operates the county's nine golf courses and the county's Gaithersburg airport, is siphoning money from Sligo to prop up the other entities. Other publicly funded recreation programs such as tennis and swimming are not required to turn a profit, they note. And, raising the specter of discrimination, critics say the revenue authority is favoring the more challenging and more expensive courses in the county's northern tier, frequented by a whiter clientele.
"Down-county and decidedly urban Sligo does not get one thin dime. It gets kicked to the curb come October 1st. There is no revenue sharing for Sligo. And the rich get richer," says the http://savesligogolf.com Web site.
The site, and much of the Save Sligo campaign, is the work of golfer and writer Mark Suffanti, a Silver Spring resident who has combed financial statements and state and county laws to challenge the county's decision. Suffanti and other Sligo fans point to revenue authority data showing that other county golf courses are losing thousands more dollars than Sligo but are not targeted for closure.
Keith Miller, executive director of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, has said the other courses have more ability to expand and have a brighter fiscal future, even if they are showing losses now.
"Our plan is to grow the game of golf," Miller said. Sligo's nine holes limit its potential, he said, adding that there are some nine-hole options at 18-hole courses. The revenue authority also has changed the pricing at all of its courses, he said, creating less expensive tee times when demand is lower. The authority also has set up reduced rates for families and monthly free lessons.
"We are not showing favor to the rich," he said. If Sligo closes, Montgomery still will have eight public golf courses, and a ninth operated by Rockville.
To cut losses at Sligo, Miller tried to add a revenue-producing driving range with night lights and a miniature golf course. But the plans were rebuffed by neighbors, who said they did not want a "golf theme park" or lights. Miller withdrew the plan, and then proposed closing the course, saying the future revenue picture was too bleak.
At the hearing, which drew more than 100 opponents of the shutdown, Douglas Wallick, a Sligo neighbor, said the decision to close is as much about golf as it is about the government's commitment to subsidizing recreation.
"How do we measure [Sligo's] positive effect on our community? How do we measure any of that in a study that solely looks at money?" Wallick asked.
Carmen Maymi, who is among a group of women who golf regularly at Sligo, said the course is known for its welcoming attitude toward female golfers. As a result, the women's group "has played there for 25 years," she said.
Elsewhere in the region, local governments say they aren't planning to cut back on golf, even though it isn't a real moneymaker anywhere. Miller cited National Golf Foundation data that predict the closure of 500 courses nationwide this year.
In Prince George's, where there are three public courses, there are no plans to cut back on golf or other publicly funded recreation, said Chris Wagnon, deputy director of facilities operations for Prince George's County's park system.
"Our philosophy in Prince George's County is to provide opportunity and amenities for county citizens in a wide variety of recreation and park activities," he said. "Our slogan is 'something for everyone.' "
Fairfax County parks spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said public golf courses are part of the county's commitment to recreation. "Our golf courses are a major part of our revenue stream," she said. "We are firmly in the golf business." Fairfax's parks authority has eight public courses. In the District, the National Park Service has three public courses, run by a contractor.
Montgomery's effort to consolidate golf under the revenue authority came about, officials said, as a cost-cutting measure that was led by then-council member Steven A. Silverman, now head of the county's economic development department, and council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). Silverman and Leventhal said recently that they had been looking for economies of scale to help the county balance its budget and pay for other social needs.
Under the transfer, the County Council turned over golf operations to the revenue authority but allowed the parks agency to keep the land. However, the parks agency had to agree to a no-compete clause that bans it from ever using the properties as golf courses.
The dispute over what's next for Sligo could come before the County Council in the fall, but possibly not before the Oct. 1 closing. So Sligo's fans are working this summer to persuade county officials to look sooner at saving the course. The issue is a hot topic on neighborhood e-mail discussion groups.
After last week's three-hour hearing before the planning board, Royce Hanson, the panel's chairman, said that the board is bound by its contract with the revenue authority and the wishes of County Council members, and said he thought it unlikely that Sligo could stay open as a golf course.
Leventhal, who was County Council president when the initial deal was struck in 2006, said the future of Sligo poses a challenge for the council, which faces a growing shortfall and the need to pay for schools, housing and other critical services.
"I don't know what the answer is. It is a perplexing situation," Leventhal said. "All general fund taxpayers should not bear the cost so that a few people can use . . . golf. But we are not maintaining the whole government on a user fee basis. We have to decide what are luxury items and what is a core function."
He left open the possibility that Sligo could be saved.
"I am not," he added, "firmly saying 'close Sligo Golf Course.' "