Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Selectmen stuck in wait-and-see mode with Ponky lease plan

Nearly three months have passed since Canton town meeting voters threw their unanimous support behind a proposed takeover of Ponkapoag Golf Course, yet the plan remains in limbo as selectmen continue to await an answer from the course’s current owner — the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Ponkapoag, or “Ponky” as it is known by locals, is one of only two golf courses in the commonwealth still owned and operated by the DCR, the other being the Leo J. Martin Memorial Golf Course in Weston.

However, three years ago, state lawmakers authorized the DCR to lease the Canton course to either the town or a private company for a period of 25 years, and now Canton would like to take the state up on its offer.

“We’re still waiting for the state to decide,” acknowledged Selectman Victor Del Vecchio in a telephone interview last week.

As Del Vecchio explained it, while there is indeed a statute on the books that gives Canton the right of first refusal on a 25-year lease of the historic golf course, the statute also included a deadline that has since expired, thus opening up the lease to private bidders.

But rather than issue a request for proposals to interested third parties, the state simply put the matter on hold. Meanwhile, Canton officials continued to look into the feasibility of local involvement, eventually deciding that the best course of action was to lease the course and then contract with a professional golf management company that could handle the day-to-day operations.

This way, Del Vecchio said, Canton could leave the management to experienced professionals while still retaining some level of control over the facility. The arrangement would also require no financial commitment from the town, and it might even lead to some “incidental revenue generation,” depending on the particular deal that is struck.

But the board’s primary objective, according to Del Vecchio, is to find a vendor that is willing to make necessary repairs and improve the overall quality of the course.

“We’re convinced that we can manage the property prudently through a third party management company and improve this jewel,” said Del Vecchio, noting that the town has successfully run the Metropolis Skating Rink for several years. “We’re pretty confident we can do a decent job of it.”

Del Vecchio said selectmen have already had preliminary discussions with management companies to get a sense of their interest level, and the response so far has been positive. They also went ahead and drafted a request for proposals and have since sent it to the state for consideration.

Del Vecchio said the RFP, which was drafted based on four major principles — accounting and affordability, maintaining and improving the property, improving financial viability, and permitting passive activity — included language that was “intentionally open-ended.”

“We don’t have any set formula,” he said. “We’re not prescribing a specific approach. We want a variety of vendors to make different proposals.”

At this point, selectmen are waiting for the green light from state officials so they can release the RFP and formally explore some offers. They have three years to come to an agreement under the terms approved at town meeting in April.

Del Vecchio and fellow Selectman Sal Salvatori had previously met with the DCR commissioner in a meeting arranged by Representative Bill Galvin, and Del Vecchio indicated that the meeting was productive.

Galvin, who was initially opposed to the state giving up control over Ponky, has worked closely with town officials on an arrangement that would protect not only the town’s interests, but those of the longtime golfers as well.

In the original statute, for instance, Galvin inserted a provision for a residential, senior citizen and children discount program, along with proposed reasonable rates to ensure “continued public access.” He also added a provision stating that if the town opts not to lease the course, it would still receive a payment from the operator “equal to or greater than the amount [the] town would receive in property taxes if the golf course were taxed as a commercial property.”
An updated version of the statute, filed by state Senator Brian Joyce in January, removed much of that language and it is unclear as to why, although Joyce stated in a recent interview that he is advocating a proposal that would benefit the “town of Canton, the taxpayers of Massachusetts, and the golfers of Ponkapoag.”

The senator, who is also pressing the state to turn over some of its other aging recreational facilities, has had his sights set on privatizing Ponky for the past several years, noting that the state manages golf courses “quite badly.”

“I wish there had been more acceptance six or seven years ago when we had a much better economy,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think we’re going to end up with a better facility and something that generates revenue rather than costs the taxpayers money.”

Joyce shares the view of selectmen that a private firm would be far more likely to invest in the facility and make some or all of the necessary repairs, which have been estimated to cost anywhere from $5 million to as much as $20 million or more.

But whereas the town would be happy with an improved golf course and increased demand, Joyce appears to be aiming a bit higher.

Noting that the state-owned Bethpage Black Golf Course in New York has twice played host to the U.S. open, Joyce firmly believes that Ponkapoag — which was designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross and was once considered a regional treasure — could one day host a similar event with the proper amount of private investment.

“A major event could generate up to $100 million for the local economy,” Joyce said. “There’s an extraordinary amount of documentation to support this. It’s like a mini Olympics.”

He added that Ponkapoag would be ideal because of its size — there are 36 holes in all (27 are currently playable) — and because of its close proximity to Boston, a major regional airport, and several interstate highways.

“It’s a dream location for corporate travelers,” he said.

Selectmen, meanwhile, have not ruled out such an ambitious plan, although Del Vecchio said it is “not necessarily [their] objective” at this point.

“Only time will tell,” he said. “We think that it’s a possibility, but that is simply frosting on the cake in our view.”