Freeholders of Hunterdon County, N.J., which owns the KemperSports-managed property in Ringoes, N.J., heard at a public hearing that its plan to build what some termed a “Taj Mahal” was much more elaborate than needed. But in the end four of the five legislators voted to approve the expenditure, with the lone dissenting vote cast as “Hell no!”
A plan to build a $2.5 million clubhouse at the Hunterdon County-owned Heron Glen Golf Course in Ringoes, N.J. drew a packed house to a public hearing at a county freeholders meeting on July 19th, NJ.com reported.
The hearing was on a $31.6 million capital investment ordinance that covers the clubhouse, a $7 million Emergency Services Training Center, and multiple other county projects including road and bridge repairs.
When freeholders voted on the ordinance, it was approved by four of the five legislators, NJ.com reported. But when the clerk read Freeholder Robert Walton’s name in the roll-call vote, he said, “Hell no!”
With the ordinance approved 4-1, someone in the audience yelled back, “Hell yes!”
The clubhouse at Heron Glen, which is managed for the county by KemperSports, was the hot topic, with people speaking in favor and against it, expressing strong views on both sides, NJ.com reported. They included former freeholders George Muller and Erik Peterson, who took opposing views on the clubhouse when they were freeholders 10 years ago, and retained those stances Tuesday night.
Muller supports building the clubhouse, NJ.com reported, saying that when the course was built, the plan was to replace trailers with a clubhouse in a couple of years. “That was done a decade ago,” he said.
As for profitability, “we get 10 percent of the take from the people who operate the course,” Muller added. “Now it’s cost-effective to make it run better than it already is.”
But Peterson said that one reason he opposes the clubhouse is its grand style, NJ.com reported. “We should not have a banquet hall, some Taj Mahal built on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said, suggesting as an alternative “a modular project at about a third of the cost — a place to eat, locker rooms, some offices.”
It’s also not the right time to invest in golf courses, Peterson said. “Golf courses are struggling more now than they were nine years ago, he noted.” And he suggested that the county-owned course, which pays no taxes, is competing with private enterprises like Copper Hill Country Club in Ringoes, N.J.; Beaver Brook Country Club in Annandale N.J.; Stanton Ridge Golf and Country Club in Whitehouse Station, N.J.; and Oak Hill Golf Club in Milford N.J.
Richard Cotton, who built the Hawk Pointe Golf Club in Washington, N.J., said at the meeting that he’s been looking at the challenges facing golf courses, NJ.com reported. “Millennials don’t have an interest in golf, and we’re seeing a decline in the number of seniors who are playing,” Cotton said. He urged freeholders to think of an alternative use for the course that would “serve a broader base of taxpayers.
“I would pull that piece out and look at the broader market of how we could use that for more people,” Cotton said.
High Bridge, N.J., also in Hunterdon County, already has a golf course (High Bridge Hills Golf Club), said Dr. Brendan Coughlin, a former High Bridge councilman. “And we have the highest tax rate in the county,” he said at the meeting. “You folks are about to add to our burden.”
Dr. Coughlin suggested an alternative to a clubhouse, NJ.com reported. “What you need is a pavilion with drop-down sides, some grills and some cold beer,” he said. But a more elaborate clubhouse “can’t be funded by the golfers you’ll be able to attract,” he added.
A large contingent of people who golf regularly at Heron Glen GC said otherwise, NJ.com reported. “Had the freeholders built the clubhouse in 1999, it would have been built at a cost of $700,000,” said County Clerk Mary Melfi.
“Hunterdon County has one of the best park systems in the state, and that’s because it has balance,” she added. People can go to Deer Path Park and rent a pavilion, or hike on county trails. “What I’m supporting is quality of life,” Melfi said. Adding a nice clubhouse at the golf course might mean a decent tournament could be held, she noted. Mentioning the Special Olympics organization in particular, she added, “There are a lot of people in the county that depend on this course.”
Following the close of the public hearing, Walton, who voted against introducing the bond ordinance at the Freeholders’ July 5 meeting, made a motion to approve the capital ordinance without an appropriation for the clubhouse, NJ.com reported, but it failed to get a second. Holt then moved the ordinance as written, and the freeholders themselves weighed in.
Walton, the lone objector among the freeholders, likened the ordinance to a bowl of lobster bisque, NJ.com reported—with the training center as the lobster, multiple projects around the county as the bisque, and the golf course clubhouse as the fly in the soup.
“It’s the wrong time to be borrowing for unnecessary projects,” he said. “We could lease the golf course, or sell it. Make [KemperSports] put up a private facility. We can put up a smaller facility. But there’s no report on any of those options.”
Many times in the past, Freeholder Deputy Director John Lanza said, freeholder boards have been “penny wise and pound foolish,” opting for less expensive options that don’t last. Even with declining numbers of people playing golf, the course has netted $300,000 in positive cash flow, he noted.
“Because we have the course, we must take care of it,” he added. And, citing interest rates of 2 percent, “Doing it while money is cheap” is the smart route, he said.
Freeholder Matt Holt noted that freeholders have eliminated county debt and that “we have not borrowed money in this century,” NJ.com reported. But it’s now time to update county facilities, Holt added, citing “rats the size of the cat I have at home” at the current burn building. The new Emergency Services Training Center is “designed to take us the next 20 years,” he said.
“It’s the same with the golf course,” Holt said. “We have 16-year-old trailers there. What do we have to do to do it right?”