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Budget hangs on golf course plans

Legislators discuss rescuing Canton links

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 2, 2008

As Beacon Hill talks on the $28 billion state budget wound down yesterday, one of the most dramatic moments turned not on healthcare, corporate taxes, or education spending, but on a prized, if dilapidated, recreational jewel. Top lawmakers huddled into the evening to come up with a rescue plan for the Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton.

Nonduffers, scoff not.

The storied course has a rich history and was designed by renowned links architect Donald Ross. But while under management of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, it has fallen into severe disrepair, with dead grass and swamped, sunken fairways.

Last night, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi agreed to lease the course to a private manager who would restore it to its former glory, or at least reasonable playability, according to two sources who have been briefed on the content of budget discussions.

But it also could mean more expensive greens fees that could turn Ponky, as it is affectionately known, into a more exclusive course.

The agreement, reached after an hourlong meeting in Murray's office, will be included in a compromise budget that could be presented today, followed days of wrangling between House and Senate budget writers.

What to do about the golf course, which was the subject of a June 16 Globe report, was one of the last remaining items holding up budget negotiations and was among the top reasons the state began the fiscal year yesterday without a budget in place.

For weeks, a committee of six lawmakers has been meeting behind closed doors to try to come to agreement on the different versions of the budget. Details of their discussions were guarded so closely that rank-and-file lawmakers were unaware of the sticking points.

Sources who were briefed on the talks said Murray was pushing hardest for a lease of the course. When approached yesterday in a State House hallway, however, Murray adamantly declined comment.

"Who told you that?" she said. "No comment on the Ponkapoag. I don't talk about what goes on in conference."

DiMasi, an 8-handicap who is a member of Ipswich Country Club, also declined to comment, but then seemed to scoff at how bad the course has become.

"Have you ever been to Ponkapoag?" he said, laughing as he repeated the question. "Have you been to Ponkapoag?"

Nine of the 36 holes are currently shut down, and it has long been pilloried as a symbol of state mismanagement. The Globe reported last month that the state was laying the groundwork for a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the course, including a new drainage system to stop chronically soggy fairways from flooding and importing truckloads of peat to raise holes that have sunken from years of neglect.

But officials at the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation are supportive of leasing the course out, instead of running it themselves.

"We believe there is some interest in the private market in having that happen," Commissioner Rick Sullivan said in an interview yesterday. "This would allow us to run that process and see if there is any interest out there."

The state also operates another golf course, the Leo J. Martin Golf Course in Weston, although that course does not have the maintenance problems that Ponkapoag does. At both courses, it costs $25 to play golf Friday through Sunday, a price some fear would not be preserved if Ponkapoag is privatized.

Attendance at Ponkapoag has dropped by 20,000 starts since 1985, to 60,000 last year, according to state figures.

Golfers at the course had mixed reactions yesterday on whether the course should be privatized.

"It could be a better course," said Matt Donahue, 20, of Westwood, who said higher fees could discourage the sort of golfers who play without shirts or drink beer on the course. "I'd just like to see it where it could be."

Others wanted to keep it state-owned because they were afraid prices would go up.

"If you take the public course away from the people, it's going to be difficult," said Rita Hubner, a Newton businesswoman who would like her son, Kyle, 11, to become a professional golfer. "For the next generation of golfers not to have this is kind of tough."

Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, has been pushing for years to lease the course, arguing that some of its loyal golfers have abandoned it because it has deteriorated so badly.

He wants the course to bring in state revenue by leasing Ponkapoag for 25-year terms to Canton or to a private management company. Joyce's proposal was included in the Senate budget, but was not part of the House version, which led to the impasse.

The standoff ended when the Senate agreed to a more-defined bidding process to decide who will run the course, sources said.

Despite protests from House lawmakers that greens fees would soar if a private company took over, the agreement includes no price restrictions, but there are certain standards for the state to decide who gets to lease the course. A prospective operator, for example, would have to spell out ways to promote public access and discount programs.

Canton would be allowed to take over the course before it went out to private management companies, but lawmakers do not expect the town to be interested.

Globe correspondent Ryan Kost contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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