Seal the deal soon on Chambers Bay Resort

Whether the USGA will choose the picturesque Chambers Bay Golf Course to site a second coming of the 2015 U.S. Open is a question for debate as county leaders hash out a proposed resort development.
Whether the USGA will choose the picturesque Chambers Bay Golf Course to site a second coming of the 2015 U.S. Open is a question for debate as county leaders hash out a proposed resort development. News Tribune file photo

Chambers Bay may or may not host a return of the U.S. Open championship that brought Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and other golf stars to University Place in June 2015. The crown jewel of Pierce County’s park system may or may not get a chance for an encore of a performance that captivated a national sports audience on a gloriously sunny Father’s Day weekend.

Either way, county leaders owe the public assurance that the spectacular 930-acre waterfront expanse of recreational and open space, anchored by the golf course, will be preserved.

Equally important, they owe taxpayers assurance that it won’t continue to be a drag on the public purse. The financing scheme that formed Chambers Creek Regional Park from the dregs of an old gravel pit and kept it afloat for the last dozen years is not sustainable.

That’s why urgency is growing for the County Council to approve a ground-lease agreement with a private developer to build a resort hotel, restaurant, spa, golf clubhouse and event space. The tax revenue and $450,000 minimum annual rent this project is sure to generate will secure the park’s future for posterity.

County executive staff have worked closely with the Absher-Putnam development team for more than two years, and they circled the end of 2018 on their calendars to get the deal done. Having missed that deadline, they’re now asking for council action in the next month or so.

Council members should move quickly to address any lingering concerns so that Chambers Bay Resort construction can start this fall.

Some big changes for the property jump out from the draft agreement, causing excitement or anxiety depending on your point of view:

* The scenic but seldom-used upper tees on the ninth hole of the golf course would be removed to make way for a public plaza/amphitheater space.

* As many as 190 golf villas would be financed as monthly rentals, though the developer would gradually convert to daily rentals to minimize extended-stay residents.

* The hotel, built into the hillside, would have an elevator to take people from the Grandview Drive entrance down to meadow level. That means no more steep walks and fewer golf shuttle vans to the first tee.

* The county wouldn’t be on the hook to build and operate a new restaurant and pro shop — two key amenities that aren’t areas of government expertise.

Will these changes help or hurt the odds that Chambers Bay hosts another major golf championship? Again, it depends who you ask.

As it stands, the prospects are cloudy. Boosters believe the gorgeous Puget Sound setting and Pacific Northwest pull will prove irresistible to the USGA when it schedules venues beyond 2027. We’ve argued that hope springs eternal, given that some favored U.S. Open courses have withstood harsh critiques not unlike those that dogged Chambers Bay in 2015.

It helps that turfgrass is now being planted on all 18 holes, which will replace the fescue that turned dry, played fast and frustrated U.S. Open competitors. (The golf course was closed for replanting in October; it reopens this spring.)

At a minimum, the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Tournament is already set for Chambers Bay in 2021, and county officials like their chances to host a Women’s Open Championship.

Regardless of all that, the county must focus on preserving the entire park property with a sustainable budget and no more financial gimmickry.

County Executive Bruce Dammeier has worked with the County Council to set things straight since taking office in 2017; that involved spending more than $3 million from the general fund to keep the golf course running and pay off accumulated loans borrowed from other county funds.

Another $930,000 subsidy is budgeted for this year — roughly $30 for every round of golf played over a full year, said Don Anderson, senior counsel to the executive.

“The myth has been that Chambers Bay was paying for itself and the beautiful park,” Anderson told our Editorial Board last week. “It’s never been true.”

Generating steady revenue through a resort project is clearly in taxpayers’ best interests, but the Absher-Putnam proposal has skeptics. Leading the resistance are John Ladenburg, the former county executive regarded as Chambers Bay’s chief visionary, and wife Connie, who represents District 4 on the County Council.

It seems unlikely that the Ladenburgs, purists that they are, would be happy with any private resort on the site. But Connie has dissected the draft agreement, raised a number of intriguing questions and made some requests that deserve consideration, such as:

* An independent outside review of the document.

* Ongoing oversight by the County Council, as the developer and county executive negotiate updates to the contract in future years.

* Consultation with the golf course architect to ensure any changes to the course don’t violate his copyright.

A 50-to-100-year collaboration like this certainly should not be entered into lightly. But after a 27-month courtship, elected officials know their local suitor quite well and should seal the deal as promptly as possible.

Pierce County can’t afford to keep waiting on Chambers Bay Resort.