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Course not a gimme

Council unsure of direction to take with Birch Ridge purchase

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008

Soldotna's first shot toward having a city-owned golf course landed nowhere near the middle of the fairway Wednesday.

Though not completely stymied behind a giant tree, the prospect of buying Birch Ridge Golf Course apparently won't be an easy chip shot to the green either.

With about 15 golf aficionados present, the Soldotna City Council discussed the merits of seeking a grant to help defray the cost of buying the golf course from Pat and Myrna Cowan, who have made it known they plan to retire from the business within two years. The council reached no conclusion.

In a memo to Mayor Dave Carey and the council, Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael said whether or not the golf course can remain as a Soldotna recreational opportunity without the city buying it "is questionable."

Two years ago, the council authorized City Manager Tom Boedeker to have the National Golf Foundation evaluate the viability of Birch Ridge being successfully operated as a municipal golf course.

Carmichael's memo said the foundation reported the golf course's "features, appeal, as well as earning potential were such that the course's continuation ... was possible so long as a return on initial capital investment was not required by the purchaser."

According to Carmichael, the finding means "there is little chance of a private investor purchasing the course since he or she would not get a return on their money."

He said the foundation report indicated market conditions would allow operating expenses and repair and replacement costs to be covered, but not enough income could be generated to provide a return on the initial investment.

"This opinion was that the course had the potential to continue as a viable operation so long as the goal was not to recover the purchase price within the near or longer term and that it would be unlikely the course would be able to remain a golf course if the purchaser expected a return on investment," Carmichael's memo stated.

The land, plus equipment and personal property, is worth between $1.8 million and $1.85 million, according to a memo from Pat Cowan to the city, and the Cowans are willing to sell it to the city for $1.5 million if the city commits to keeping it as a golf course.

Testifying to the council Wednesday, Pat Cowan said, "As far as income, the golf course has given us a decent life.

"There's more than making money; there's quality of life," he said.

"I would love to see the city purchase it and keep it as a golf course," said Myla McFarland, who described herself as being in real estate. "Customers coming into the area always ask if we have a golf course."

Dave Keating, who said he lives on the back side of the golf course, told the council, "Having that golf course available knits the community together. I would like to see it kept as a golf course."

Dan Gensel said he learned to play golf at Birch Ridge and "it would be a positive step to look into as many grants as possible" to assist with the purchase of the golf course.

Carmichael's memo said the Rasmuson Foundation assisted the city of Sitka develop a golf course and it would be reasonable to believe Soldotna could be considered for a $400,000 to $750,000 grant to help with the continued recreational opportunity for city residents.

Cowan said Rasmuson also gave a grant to the city of Wrangell for its golf course.

"I encourage the city council to authorize the city manager to complete the grant applications to go forward with the purchase of the golf course," said Linda Murphy who lives on Fairway Circle.

Council members Shane Horan and Betty Obendorf said they support applying for a grant, but Obendorf added she did not want the city to be obligated to purchase if it does not get the grant.

"I'm dead set against the government operating a business," said Councilman Ed Sleater.

"I think we need to settle the question first, 'Do we need to buy a golf course?'" he said. "The cemetery, the library expansion are much more important to the city as a whole."

Sleater said while grants help toward the purchase, "once you own it, you've got to feed that beast."

Councilman Peter Micciche said, "I'm good friends with the Cowans, but I'm having difficulty getting there.

"I don't think we need to bother the Rasmuson Foundation until we know that's the direction we want to go," Micciche said.

Hearing no consensus from the council, Carey said, "I don't hear we need to go forward at this point."

Cowan said later, as far as the city operating a business, it already runs recreational vehicle parks and the sports center.

"If the city is not interested in purchasing Birch Ridge, I will pursue a sale to someone else who would keep it as a golf course," Cowan said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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