Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TOP STORY >>Sherwood council allows mayor to hire consultant

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

The sellers of the North Hills Country Club have told Alderman Becki Vassar that they plan to turn off the water May 1.
Al Harkin, with Arkansas National Bank, has told Linda Nickle, from the city’s economic development office that the sale of the golf course will close April 14.

Attorney Tim Grooms, who specializes in land acquisitions for cities, has suggested condemning the property. Bob Franks, a former president of the country club, told the community that a management company could be contracted to run the course for the city.

Mayor Stedman wants to be careful and not throw the city’s money down a black hole. And the buyers, who want to turn the golf course into a gated community of high-end homes, have not been heard from. All this, brought out at a 90-minute meeting Monday afternoon of the city committee looking at the possibility of Sherwood either buying or running the golf course, prompted the members to bring a resolution to the city council meeting Monday night.

The resolution, which the council readily accepted, allows the mayor to sign with a company to do a feasibility study and to take prudent emergency action if the water is turned off at the golf course.

“Once that water is turned off, the golf course is gone,” Vassar told committee members Monday afternoon. According to City Attorney Steve Cobbs, because the feasibility study comes under the heading of professional services, it does not have to go out for bid.

More than likely, the mayor will enter into a contract with Castin and Associates in Little Rock. That firm did a feasibility study for the city in 1997, and John Castin was at the committee meeting. He said a feasibility study would run anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on who did the study and how thorough it is. He also said a study usually takes 45 to 60 days.

Castin said his firm could do the study for about $10,000 to $12,000 and have it ready within 45 days. Alderman Ken Rankin said, “If the city were to somehow take over the golf course, it would also inherit another swimming pool, tennis courts, and a club house which could be used for more formal events.”

The supposed buyers plan to build $300,000 to $400,000 homes atop the golf course, but no one in the city has seen any plans or been approached about infrastructure. City Engineer Mike Clayton said the sewer collection system in the area was not designed for heavy residential use and would have to be rebuilt. Grooms agreed that the land would be tough to develop because of traffic and road concerns.

“You’d have to go through the state to open up a new road onto Highway 107 and I doubt they would allow it, and any of the current secondary roads would have to be widened at least, all at the cost of the developer,” Grooms explained. Grooms said the city had two options if they decide on condemnation.

One is a quick-turn condemnation in which the city would immediately take over the property. This would prevent the golf course from deteriorating from lack of water, but could be costly to the city. Once the property is condemned, Grooms explained, a judge decides its fair market value and that’s what the city would pay for the property.

But the city will have to deposit that amount or close to it into a holding fund until the case is decided. “Chances are that the city doesn’t have that kind of money readily available,” Grooms said. A second method, Grooms said, was to pass a moratorium on development, including building permits and rezoning, for a reasonable period of time.

“This is a slow-burn method,” Grooms explained, “and gives the city time to see what is its best option.” Vassar predicted a hostile response from the seller if the city went through with a moratorium. Castin told the committee that there were two major questions the city needed to answer: Is there a demand for the golf course and what is the practicality of operating a golf course?

He added that overall, golfing is on a downslide. Castin said the participation rate nationally is about 13.5 percent, but it drops to about seven percent in Arkansas.“But we have pockets that are much higher,” he said. Hot Springs Village, a community of about 14,000, has 11 golf courses. “That seems to be all they do there,” Castin said, adding that Glenwood, a city of about 3,500, has one of the best courses in the state.

“Golfers will go a great distance to play a quality course, but won’t cross the street to play a poor course,” Castin said.
Franks said the North Hills course was redesigned in the seventies by golf architect great Trent Jones. “He wanted a course in every state before he died and that’s how we got him,” Franks said. Castin said that North Hills would make an excellent municipal course.

“But I don’t know if it’ll make any money,” he added even though his 1997 study suggested a golf course would be a moneymaker for the city. The study concluded “that sufficient public golf-market support now exists and is likely to increase to fully justify the construction of an 18-hole regulation length public golf course facility in the city of Sherwood.”

The study said by 2010 there would be close to 11,000 golfers in the area generating a demand for more than 250,000 annual rounds of golf.

Castin predicted a Sherwood course would handle about 28,000 rounds of golf during its first year and increase to 45,600 rounds by its fifth year of operation. At that time, the city was looking at building the course on land near Sherwood Forest. The study predicted it would cost between $1.6 and $4.5 million to build the course, another $425,000 to $950,000 for building and equipment maintenance, and $200,000 to $500,000 in annual maintenance.