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May vote possible on Decker Golf proposal

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, chair of the Council Economic Opportunity Committee, said she intends for her committee to vote on the Decker Lake Golf proposal at its next meeting May 11. Troxclair outlined some options for her colleagues at Monday’s committee meeting following nearly two hours of presentations and discussion.

Troxclair said they could send the matter to voters, with or without changes to the contract. Alternatively, the committee could recommend that their colleagues approve the contract as written, or they could recommend disapproval of the contract.

Decker Lake Golf LLC is seeking a 50-year license agreement in order to develop two PGA-class golf courses, a clubhouse, meeting space, driving range and related amenities on 735 acres of the undeveloped parkland. In addition to the initial agreement, if Council finally approves the proposal, there would be four 10-year extension options, which could stretch the license to 90 years. Developers have been working with the Parks and Recreation Department for at least a year to try to bring the project to fruition.

Staff has told Council members on numerous occasions that the city can enter into a license agreement on parkland, but not a lease, without consulting voters. Troxclair questioned whether they could send the matter to voters even if signing the lease agreement without asking the public would not be a violation of the city charter. Without an expert on the issue in the audience, she would have to wait to get an answer.

At this point, the only person on the dais who obviously supports the lease is District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, whose constituents favor economic development in what she says is their underserved part of town. Houston read remarks from former Council Member Charles Urdy, who sat in the audience. She explained that the city acquired the property and promised to put a park to serve the area at that location.

Kevin Gomillion, the city’s golf coordinator, explained that the city developed a plan for the area in 1968 — revised in 1978 — that included a golf course. He said there would be 50 construction jobs initially and 35 permanent jobs at the golf course itself. Other jobs would follow at hotels and related amenities, he said.

Gomillion also explained that because of the large investment the developer would be making, estimated at $25-$28 million, the initial return to the city would be low. However, he said he expected the return to increase to a range of 11 to 12 percent later.

After the meeting, Urdy said, “I’ve watched this since it first unfolded back in the ’60s.” Urdy served five terms on the Austin City Council from 1981 to 1994. A longtime resident of East Austin and professor at Huston-Tillotson University, Urdy said that in all these years, the city has expressed little interest in developing the part of East Austin around Decker Lake. It had devised a master plan that included the lake, the power plant and a golf course, but never got any further in building once it completed the lake and the power plant, he noted.

“If the city had invested the money, the golf course would have been built years ago,” Urdy said. “But they didn’t, and then this proposal came along, which the city solicited, and they were going to get this done without any city investment in it. I thought that was an ideal situation.” Then there was opposition. Urdy said he did not understand where the opposition was coming from.

For one thing, he continued, people were saying, “Well, we don’t know if these are the right kind of jobs.” However, Urdy believes that question should not arise, “especially when you’ve got three or four times the rate of unemployment as the rest of the city. That means that a lot of folks are looking for any kind of job they can find. So it’s kind of demeaning to those folks.”

Urdy also disagreed that the city designating the land as parkland should be an issue, pointing out that the acreage is parkland because the city said it was going to build a golf course there long ago.

Additionally, Urdy was upset because the committee did not allow him and others to speak. Council Member Leslie Pool tried but failed to introduce testimony from golf course critic Brian Rodgers, who had written a lengthy report on the proposal, particularly the economic aspects.

Rodgers is clearly opposed to the Decker Golf proposal. Troxclair did not want Rodgers to testify because the committee closed the public hearing last November and the agenda did not include public comment.

After the meeting, Pool said, “It’s completely within our purview to reopen the public hearing. I wanted to hear from Brian Rodgers because the only people this Council has heard from was staff … and the people in favor (of the proposal).”

Pool, a member of the Economic Opportunity Committee but also chair of the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee, said she intends to have some in-depth discussions about the golf course and call for public comments at her committee’s meeting April 29.

Photo by New Brunswick Tourism (Herring Cove Golf Course, New Brunswick, Canada) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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