It's a victory, but why am I so skeptical?
On Tuesday, the Lake County Forest Preserves District (LCFPD) Board of Commissioners voted to approve an Advisory Committee recommendation and seek bids to construct and operate a compromise golf course at Fort Sheridan Preserves.
After a multi-year endeavor to examine options for the 259-acre property, a vote of 12 to 10 moved the process in the direction of rebuilding a golf course at the former Army base.
On the surface, the outcome sounds positive. LCFPD voted to issue a request for proposal (RFP) to construct a compromise 9-hole golf course and nature trail facility on the site of the former 18-hole course, bulldozed without a plan in 2004. However, instead of an expected offering of a public/private partnership, recognizing the legal commitment LCFPD made over a decade ago to operate a golf course on the site, the advisory committee stipulated that no LCFPD funds be spent on development of the golf course.
In other words, a private developer will have to assume the risk to both construct and operate the golf course, based on LCFPD's restrictions, yet cover their costs and make a profit.
Outcome still questionable
Listening to the vote, it was clear to me that this is not a decision the LCFPD board actually supports. Three of the commissioners stated on the record that their yes votes were "on advice of legal counsel." Ten commissioners voted no, despite whatever legal counsel swayed those three yes votes. LCFPD Director Tom Hahn and Commissioner Steve Carlsen were quick to go on record as saying that the vote is only the best procedural next step, not an endorsement of actually building a golf course.
Based on that imbalance, posturing and discussion during LCFPD committee meetings in the last few weeks, the outcome of this process is still questionable in my mind. In a memo obtained by Patch, LCFPD Director Hahn outlined a set of 36 additional parameters for the RFP. The concerns include relatively mundane discussion points like how much insurance will be needed, but also bizarre discussion points like where the LCFPD logo will be incorporated into the facility.
More to the point, the RFP parameters include prohibitions against changing the landscape mix of golf vs. nature, or building a revenue-producing restaurant/banquet facility.
In their 2011-2012 budget, the LCFPD plans over $80 million in expenditures. $70 million of that is taxpayer money, not revenue. Most LCFPD facilities, like any government operation anywhere, are designed to spend money, not make money. Yet despite receiving the entire Fort Sheridan Preserve property for free, with only a legal deed restriction that requires LCFPD to operate a golf course on the site in perpetuity, LCFPD is suddenly concerned about whether one of their operations is going to cost more money than it takes in.
I don't get this.
Promises made, promises kept
In recent weeks, Highland Park Councilman Steve Mandel has convinced me that I have fallen for the money argument on this issue. In my writing the last few years, I have tried to show how the LCFPD has been simply wrong on their financial estimates of construction and operational costs for a Fort Sheridan golf course. Considering their whole budget, the small per-annum investment in a properly constructed Fort Sheridan golf course will be neutral to small losses, similar to other LCFPD operations. Former Highland Park Mayor Ray Geraci told me Tuesday morning that the total investment in Fort Sheridan redevelopment was roughly $250 million. Why are we haggling over the last 0.5 percent?
Any time the argument has been over costs, LCFPD simply put their trump card on the table -- their consultant, their advisor, their expert. Despite their inaccurate information, they were always able to appear to be correct, and project a dire deficit scenario on this course as well as surrounding golf entities.
I should have been playing to honor all along. Promises made, promises kept. Yes, golf is declining, but it is not dead. There are other area courses that can and should be shut down, making room for a wonderful destination course overlooking the lakefront. Area communities would benefit from a destination at Fort Sheridan Preserves, especially with a year-round banquet/restaurant facility, not the vacant lot it appears to be today.
Let the developers work
Over the coming weeks, the RFP will take shape, and my hope is that there will be some recognition that the only way we all win is a proposal structure that someone will actually want to build. Fort Sheridan residents and Highland Park and Highwood officials tell me that there are plenty of golf course and entertainment industry developers who would love to operate a facility on the Fort Sheridan site.
My own concern is whether any of them will take a shot at the LCFPD RFP. If it contains all 36 of Director Hahn's concerns, no developer would be interested -- it would be the real estate equivalent of having one hand tied behind their back. Give the potential developers some flexibility to be creative and find the maximum revenue and recreation equation for the site. Let them discuss options like a restaurant/banquet facility or a pro shop. Let them consider the best approach to course play and layout.
Let them do what they do best, and we might come out with a winner for all of Lake County.