More than 300 attend public hearing to discuss former country club issue

By Lynn R. Parks

Nanticoke Senior Center board member Ben Sirman told the more than 300 people at a public hearing in the Seaford Fire Hall Tuesday night that the city of Seaford's plan to buy the former site of the Seaford Golf and Country Club is one step toward "making Seaford No. 1 again." "If we don't take this step, we will have neighborhood blight. We will have another boarded up building and a golf course grown up in weeds," he said. But "if the community embraces this, we will have people moving to Seaford. We will have economic development." But city resident Ted Gruwell said that purchasing the property and taking over operations of the golf course would put the city in "a black hole." "All country clubs around are in trouble right now," he said. "This is not the type of thing that I would enter into lightly." Gruwell was the only one of the more than a dozen people who spoke during the public hearing who objected to the city's plan. City resident Richard Eger, who admitted to skepticism as to whether the city's plan to operate the country club's golf course can be successful, said that he was won over after he saw how much money the city could save if it can use the property as a disposal site for treated wastewater. Those savings are "pretty phenomenal," Eger said. "It's in the city's financial interest to move forward." Details about the plan to use the golf course as a site for spray irrigation of treated wastewater were part of a presentation made at the start of the hearing by members of the city council. New federal laws, to be developed in 2012, are expected to reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus the city is allowed to put in the Nanticoke River, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They are also expected to require the city to collect stormwater and remove sediment from it. Councilman Rhea Shannon said that buying land to use for spray irrigation could cost the city more than $4 million. And piping treated wastewater to a remote site would add another $1 million to the price tag. "The cost of pumping treated effluent from the [wastewater treatment] plant to the golf course would be a benefit," added councilwoman Grace Peterson. The golf course "is close to the plant and pumping costs would be less than some other alternative sites located outside of the city limits." Using treated wastewater to irrigate the golf course would also save water, city manager Dolores Slatcher said. Irrigating the golf course uses 35 million to 40 million gallons of water a year. The city's treatment plant treats 1.1 million gallons of wastewater a day and is capable of treating up to 2 million gallons a day. The city council's presentation also included details about the purchase of the land, about the sale of the clubhouse to the Nanticoke Senior Center and about how the former country club's golf course and pool would be operated. The city council is expected to vote on its proposal to buy the property at its next meeting, Tuesday, May 25.

The purchase The city has been considering the purchase of the golf course and clubhouse since September, when members of the struggling club voted to put it up for sale. A committee appointed by Mayor Ed Butler in October recommended to the city that it move ahead with the possible purchase of the property. In an executive session held March 9, the city council agreed to enter into negotiations to purchase the country club and then to sell the clubhouse to the Nanticoke Senior Center. Negotiations for the purchase have been with Wilmington Trust, which holds the club's $1.8 million loan. The club has defaulted on the loan. The country club property, including all furniture and fixtures, has been appraised at $1.809 million. Shannon told the public hearing that the city is offering the bank $1.4 million for the property. It is also offering to sell the clubhouse to the senior center for $624,000. The city charter grants it the authority to borrow up to $2 million per fiscal year. If the city moves ahead with this purchase, its loan for $800,000, the balance of the cost of the property after the clubhouse is paid for, would settle after July 1, in fiscal year 2011. The loan would be paid back over 10 years. An increase in property taxes of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value would cover the payback of the loan, Shannon said.

The golf course Adkins Management, which operates the Rookery, a public golf course near Milton, would operate and maintain the golf course for the first couple years. Slatcher expects that maintenance of the course would start in June and the course would open in July.

After the city has some operating experience under its belt, it will advertise for bids for golf course management companies, Slatcher said. The course would be open seven days a week. In time, councilman Bill Bennett said, the course could have 22,500 rounds played on it per year. City resident and real estate agent George Farnell said that a public golf course would only add to the city's amenities. "It would be just one more thing that makes this an attractive place to live in," he said. "With a public course you are going to see us get more businesses and people coming here."

The senior center The former clubhouse would make an "excellent location" for the Nanticoke Senior Center, Sirman said. The senior center, formally housed in the Western Sussex Boys and Girls Club, has been in temporary quarters in a former church on U.S. 13 since its lease with the Boys and Girls Club ran out in March. Anticipating the end of their lease, members of the senior center have been raising money since last spring toward the construction of a new facility. Plans were to build that facility, which would be owned by the senior center, on city property in the Ross Business Park. The senior center has raised about $600,000 toward the estimated $2.37 million cost of a new building. Even with required renovations, moving into the former clubhouse would save the senior center more than $1 million over the cost of building new, Sirman said. "In this economy, this is really a big deal," he said. In addition, the senior center would be able to use the clubhouse's existing ballroom to generate revenue, Sirman said. "We do plan to continue to offer the ballroom for wedding, reunions, parties, whatever anybody wants," he said.

The pool A board of directors is already in place for the new Seaford Community Swim Center, which would operate the former country club's pool in partnership with the city. Whitney Pogwist, former swim team coach at the country club, is heading up the new swim center. Pogwist said that volunteers would run the pool, hiring staff and "doing everything that needs to be done to keep the pool open." Memberships in the pool would cost $75 per person and no more than $350 per family. The pool's swim team would be open to members as well as non-members. "We are open to being diverse," Pogwist said. Pogwist said that she supports the city's plan "whole-heartedly." She added, "This pool is a part of my history. I want it to be a part of my kids' history as well. Let's save the pool, for our kids and for the kids of the people who will live in Seaford after us."

Words of caution Although there was vast support expressed during the public hearing for the city's plan to buy the former country club, there were some words of caution. Bill Hinz, who is a volunteer counselor for business owners, said that he has seen many businesses fail because of poor planning. "I have heard a lot of optimistic projections here tonight, and I warn you not to be overly optimistic," he said. "Doing so will expose you to a lot of risk. Get a detailed business plan to make sure that you are going to come out on the positive side of this." Eger suggested that the city hold a public referendum on the plan. And former Mayor Guy Longo, who like Pogwist said that the plan has his whole-hearted support, added that the city should take care that spray irrigation won't affect the quality of aquifers. Slatcher said that the city will obtain engineering reports before installing any spray irrigation and will be required to monitor the quality of the water it is applying.

Avoiding blight Area resident Dan Messick said that the savings associated with the spray irrigation alone are reason enough to buy the country club property. "To me, if those numbers are real, this is a no-brainer," he said. Messick went on to say that the plan would also prevent blight from edging into the neighborhood. He recalled visiting the Inner Harbor in Baltimore 40 years ago, before it underwent its renaissance. "What a blighted area that was," he said. "And then the community and the government came together and brought the Inner Harbor to what it is today. We have to be progressive to keep our city." "The city of Seaford can't stand still," added city resident Carroll Beard. "We've got to move ahead, take chances, assume some risk and then promote what we do. Everybody needs to get behind this plan and support it."

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