2005: Business - Carlsbad OK’s $57.3M layout

Carlsbad, Calif., has long been to golf what Silicon Valley is to the computer world – the capital of its industry.

The coastal city, 40 minutes north of San Diego on I-5, serves as home to a slew of golf companies, including Callaway, TaylorMade and Cobra.

Now, Carlsbad can boast another golf claim: It apparently will be home to America’s most expensive municipal course.

At $57.3 million, no one can definitively say the course – slated to open in two years – will be the costliest track ever built by taxpayers. But it’s unlikely anyone will quibble with the designation.

“It’s the most I’ve ever heard of,” says Richard Singer, director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation, which monitors course openings.

Though the Carlsbad course certainly will be an upscale facility, there is no indication it will be the Taj Mahal of municipal layouts. Why then the exorbitant price tag? Inflation, environmental challenges and redesigns incurred during a 16-year saga to make the course a reality.

When the Carlsbad City Council last month finally approved construction costs in a 3-2 vote, it brought closure to the project that was first endorsed by Carlsbad voters in 1989 as part of a long-range plan to boost tourism. Back then, the cost of the golf course was budgeted at a mere $8 million to $9 million (not including its 397-acre site that the city bought several years later for roughly $5 million.)

“It’s an economic vision for Carlsbad,” says Claude “Bud” Lewis, 74, who has been mayor since 1986 and has overseen the project since its inception and through its many iterations. “I’ll be expired before the benefits of this golf course are realized. This golf course is for the future.”

But in the present awaits an inflated bill that includes $35.1 million in building contracts and a $5 million clubhouse. Construction is scheduled to begin Sept. 1, and the 6,846-yard course designed by Greg Nash is scheduled to open July 1, 2007.

According to Carlsbad officials, the city will draw $30 million from its general funds to pay the bulk of the tab. It will sell bonds to be paid over the next 30 years, and tap a hotel bed tax that was approved as part of the original 1989 referendum to finance the course and other municipal recreation projects.

Surprisingly, in the end, the escalating expenses caused little public outcry. The project’s lengthy approval – during which time many residents became convinced the course would never be built – ultimately came with dissenting votes, but even those were tempered.

Norine Sigafoose, one of the council’s two nay votes, strongly endorses building a course. But she favors another ballot referendum to gauge the opinion of a much-changed populous: The number of Carlsbad residents has increased to 93,000 – up 48 percent since the last vote.

“I just think it got out of hand pricewise,” Sigafoose says.

The project began one of its many costly detours following the discovery of protected and endangered species on the course site, according to John Cahill, Carlsbad’s municipal projects manager. The California Coastal Commission, the environmental agency that controls construction permits for developments along the state’s coast, ordered design changes to protect the habitat for various species, most notably for the California black-tailed gnatcatcher.

What followed, say Nash and Cahill, was a radical makeover that affected about 40 percent of the layout. The final plans call for a routing that will wind through about 200 acres of the site. Four or five holes will be separated by more than 100 yards; two by 300 to 500 yards. Ultimately, the design work, including revisions, added nearly $9 million to the total bill, Cahill says.

To help defray the cost, however, the city also will build two industrial-use sites, spanning 12 acres of the property. Eventually, Carlsbad officials plan to sell or lease the sites, which currently are valued at $12.5 million, Cahill says.

Still, Sigafoose is concerned that the course won’t meet its target of 55,000 rounds per year and generate $1.5 million annually – the sum needed to repay the bonds. Any shortfall, she says, must be covered by the city’s general fund. (Green fees for the course have not yet been determined.)

But Lewis, apparently, has no such reservations.

“It will help the city. Maybe not in the short run, but it will in the long run,” he says. “I’d vote for it again.”

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