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OPINION: Making a difficult decision on Meriden’s banquet facility

OPINION: Making a difficult decision on Meriden’s banquet facility

Meriden elected officials have been trying for over a year to make a difficult decision as to whether or not they should invest a million and a half dollars in a banquet facility for the municipally-owned Hunter Golf Club. The projected cost seems to be constantly increasing, and it just cannot be guaranteed that this additional investment will indeed turn this very nice facility into a profit-generating asset.

As someone who was formerly in their shoes as an elected official, I do not envy them one bit. $1.5+ million dollars is a hefty investment to make in a facility that serves only — and can only serve only — a small segment of the population. The course may have been built with the expectation that it would generate revenue such that general tax money would not be needed to subsidize its operation, and, for years, perhaps that was so.

But now it is not self-supporting, and a request for an additional investment becomes both an economic and a political decision. That is the dilemma that the Meriden City Council is in.

During my tenure as a Wallingford Town Councilor, there was a group of residents that lobbied very vigorously for a golf course, and there was another group that lobbied very intensely for the town to build and operate a hockey rink. In fact, as I recall, there was an actual committee that was formed to study the possibility of a town-owned golf course.

Neither of these projects came to fruition, primarily because of Mayor Dickinson’s reluctance. It was during this time that I was given one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about municipal government. Essentially, he opposed expending the millions of dollars to build either of these facilities for three reasons: 1) the facility will only be used – can only be used – by a fraction of the community; 2) a municipality should not be in the business of operating facilities whose revenue is not guaranteed to cover all expenses; and 3) once built, any government program or asset builds a constituency that expects that service to be funded regardless of cost.  The rest of this column will elaborate on these contentions.

First of all, a municipal government has limited resources, and those resources should be devoted to providing a limited set of services: police and fire protection, education, public works, health protection, and so forth. It would indeed include recreation, but the offerings of that department should be broad enough that almost everyone in the community can participate in at least some of them. Golf, as enjoyable as it is, is played by a small percentage of the residents. Hockey? Same thing. And both of these sports require facilities that entail a large initial investment and significant operating dollars.

Secondly, these facilities are essentially businesses, not just municipal services. The bonds floated to build the facility, the annual operating expenses, and the depreciation inherent in such facilities all must be paid entirely from operating revenues. A business will take such a risk that the arithmetic will work in the hope of making a profit. The operative word is risk. A municipality is not in the business of taking risks that depend on difficult-to-predict market demand to meet all its costs.

Thirdly, alas, there is the political calculation that must be considered. If you build a golf course or a hockey rink, and that huge investment begins to hemorrhage money – for whatever reason – it is very difficult to “cut your losses” and shut the place down. There is a devoted constituency that will make a sympathetic case to keep the place open. That goes for any government program. As President Reagan famously said: “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear.” That’s a fact of political life.

Mayor Dickinson did not make friends by denying the well-meaning groups of people asking for these two facilities. In fact, I am sure that there are some that, to this day, feel that he was wrong to deny their requests. But in hindsight, and in view of the conundrum that the City of Meriden now faces concerning Hunter Golf Club, it would appear to have been the right decision.

There was an editorial in this paper a few weeks ago suggesting that perhaps it is time to consider selling Hunter. A private enterprise is far more agile than a government in its ability to make this beautiful course a paying entity. Ultimately, that may be the only course of action that makes sense.

The ribbon-cutting day for Hunter Golf Club must have been a great day to be a Meriden city councilor. For today’s city councilors? Not so much. And given the decision they’re facing, I’d bet that some are thinking to themselves: “I wish the thing had never been built.”

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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