“We cannot take care of what we got now, why should we buy a golf course?”
“Residential development of the golf course would be the worst thing that ever happened to Jamestown.”
“What does the town know about running a golf course?”
“Buy it and develop it as a new town commercial center.”
“Buy it and develop it as a campus for all town buildings and sports fields.”
“Buy it and turn it into openspace wildlife area.”
“I don’t play golf, why should my tax dollars be used to buy a golf course?”
“Buy it and add a nice walking path through it for those people that don’t play golf.”
“If we buy it, can I cross country ski on it in the winter?”
“If we buy it, who is going to run it? The recreation department? Public works?”
“Buy it and restrict it for Jamestown residents only.”
“Buy it and buy the land next to it and make it into an 18-hole championship golf course.”
“Rezone it as commercial recreation so the owner can only sell it as a golf course.”
These are just some of the opinions that filled the air at the coffee shop and dominated the Town Council agendas in the mid-1980s. The owner of the golf course had told his friends and neighbors that he was going to sell the course for development and move to Florida. Although the owner had threatened selling in the past, this time seemed more serious. He had hired an attorney and engineer. He had contacted the Public Works Department and planning board, and he told everyone he saw he was selling it and would make millions on the residential development.
The Town Council dispatched the town administrator to talk with the owner. However, the meeting was unsuccessful. The owner was uninterested in discussing his decision with town officials.
The council then directed the town administrator, town planner and public works director to research and submit a written report relative to the fiscal impact on the community of the 70-acre residential development being proposed. The report prepared and submitted by town staff clearly showed that the development would have a negative fiscal impact on schools, drinking water supplies, public works, etc. In other words, the cost of services required by the new homeowners would most likely be greater than the revenue collected from the additional property taxes.
Armed with this report, the Town Council called an executive session to discuss the possible acquisition of the property. After some review and venting of the pros and cons, all members seemed willing to negotiate a purchase price.
(To quote Bill Clinton in a recent speech at the Democratic convention, “Now listen carefully because this is important”.)
The council president then said to the other council members something to this effect: “I will sit down with the attorney for the owner and do my best to negotiate the lowest purchase price, but when I come back with the negotiated number we are not going to carp and argue about the price. We all agree now to support the acquisition and we agree to vote affirmatively at the public Town Council meeting to submit the negotiated purchase price to the town voters at a special financial town meeting.”
All council members agreed, and a few weeks later, the council president completed the negotiation with a purchase price of $2.1 million. At the next regular Town Council meeting, the council members, true to their word, voted their approval. It was submitted to a special financial town meeting and unanimously approved by more than 500 voters. From the first notification of the owner’s intent to sell, to the vote of approval at the FTM, the entire process took approximately one year.
The point of this story is this: these days our councils seem unwilling to behave like decision makers. Councils seem reluctant to lead or become vested in any particular problem or solution. They have become more concerned with process than results. They do not commit to solutions but rather delegate their responsibility to a committee, or hire a consultant, or sponsor a charrette with facilitators and break-out sessions and white-boards filled with “no bad idea” ideas. Increasingly, professional town staff are not asked to create reports, recommend solutions or define alternatives, but rather to hire consultants and schedule more meetings.
Councils are chosen for their good judgment and elected to lead the community, not hire consultants or wait to see what a committee thinks. The town’s professional staffs by education and experience are best equipped to define problems and recommend solutions to the council that reflect the community. We are a small town with manageable problems and solutions, and I think the next Town Council might learn something from the council that bought the golf course.
The author is a former town administrator and town councilor.