Many questions, some answers about Little Harbor purchase proposal

Jan 14, 2022

Some more details about officials’ plan to purchase the Little Harbor Country Club came to light at a Jan. 12 Community Preservation Committee meeting, but many questions remain. 

Judith Whiteside, who said she was representing Town Administrator Derek Sullivan, spoke to committee members about the project after submitting an application for $2.3 million in funding, which would need to be approved at Town Meeting.

“We know that this is a big ask, but we also know that this is an opportunity for this town,” Whiteside said. She noted that while the town owns a good amount of conservation land, the opportunities for outdoor active recreation are limited. 

The $2.3 million price for the course includes about $210,000 of equipment, including landscaping equipment and golf carts, Whiteside said. 

She said that if the town purchases the course, it will also hire a management company to run the course’s daily operations. The town would be responsible for the cost of necessary equipment, and it is unclear who would pay for the cost of improvements like a potential second story on the course’s clubhouse or repairs to its 50-year-old irrigation system if necessary. The town has agreed to replace the course’s septic system if it purchases the course. 

Among the big questions that went unanswered are the course’s financial status. While Whiteside said that it has been profitable for the past several years and said golf was growing in popularity, no town officials have yet been able to take a look at the business’s books. That access will come only after a non-disclosure agreement has been signed. 

“I’m having a little bit of a hard time looking at this opportunity because I can’t see the income and expenses,” said Joan Kinniburgh, the committee’s chair.

But Whiteside claimed that there is no risk to the town. If the course is not profitable, she said, the management company would eat the costs.

It is unclear what the town’s options would be if the effort is unsuccessful.

Whiteside said ominously that at least one other person is ready to buy the course and put forty condos on it. At previous meetings, it’s been noted that the country club owners were unable to find a buyer who would continue to operate the golf course, leading them to begin talks with Mass Audubon. After much public pushback, Mass Audubon pulled out of the deal.

Whiteside said that 14 of the 15 towns on the Cape have municipal golf courses — many of which were private courses bought by the towns as investments.

Several committee members seemed skeptical, and brought up the town’s past unsuccessful efforts to enter the business world, including an ill-fated stint as the owner of Bay Pointe, a purchase of property on Swifts Beach, and, most recently, the purchase of the Tremont Nail Factory. 

“We’re not talking about a mistake, we’re talking about a community amenity,” Whiteside said. Board member Barbara Smith noted that the town of Wareham has significant disparities in income — in fact, part of Onset is designated as a blight. She contested Whiteside’s claim that the course would be of benefit to everyone in town. 

“It’s an expensive sport,” she said.

Currently, Whiteside said, there are no plans to give Wareham residents a discount, but “that can be explored.”

The course would not be open to walkers or anyone not playing, as those who have not signed up to play aren’t covered by a course’s liability insurance. 

Committee member Sam Corbitt said that he thought the town should leave all responsibilities — including the purchasing of golf carts and maintenance of buildings — to the management company.

“The town has a horrible record of running businesses — Bay Pointe, the West Field, Tremont Nail,” Corbitt said. 

“The town had a terrible experience with Bay Pointe, I understand that,” Whiteside said. “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about 20 years later on, and smarter.”

She noted that the town did not hire a management company to run Bay Pointe.  

“What if [the course] loses money?” Corbitt asked. 

“[The management company] would take the loss,” Whiteside said.

Corbitt said that an in-law of his runs a nearby golf course which has seen declining use for years. Young people, he said, are not getting involved in the sport. 

Committee members also expressed environmental concerns about potential spills near equipment storage or from fertilizer. Whiteside said that the course uses minimal, safe fertilizers, and said that the Buzzards Bay Coalition had offered to help the town manage the salt marsh.

She also said that the purchase would protect the town beach as it would prevent development and allow the beach to move back.

“The purchase of the property will provide protection from development encroaching on that marsh,” Whiteside said. 

Alan Slavin said that the management company would have insurance that would also protect the town.

Whiteside said that the town is in the best financial position its been in years. 

“This is not going to make us look bad,” Whiteside said. “We have no risk of losing money.”

In recent years, Whiteside said, the club hasn’t been aggressively marketed in the way that a management company would do. And the funds coming in from the club’s profits would be used to pay for any expenses. 

“It’s our intent to run it as an enterprise fund so that all the profit would stay in there,” said Bernie Pigeon of the Finance Committee. 

With no information about projected profits, Kinniburgh said, she couldn’t evaluate whether the purchase made financial sense.

The funds would come from the town’s Community Preservation Fund. Each year, the Community Preservation Committee awards money to projects through the Community Preservation Act in four categories: open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and recreation. The money is raised through a 3 percent surcharge on property tax bills. Spending the funds must be approved at Town Meeting.  

If the course isn’t paid for entirely by Community Preservation funds, Whiteside said the remainder of the cost could be paid for from free cash or bonded out. She noted that one Select Board member had expressed interest in splitting off some parcels of land to develop as condos to cover the rest of the purchase cost.