Financial woes mount for Benson-backed golf course

A posh Seacoast area golf course founded by Gov. Craig Benson and other corporate executives is in financial trouble. And the question is whether Benson, who holds the mortgage on the property, will lend it even more money.

The club is behind on its bills. Channel Building Company, a Massachusetts contractor, filed suit Jan. 20 in Rockingham Superior Court against the Golf Course of New England, which straddles Stratham and Greenland, for missing three payments at the end of last year totaling $615,000 to build the course’s clubhouse. The judge attached a $675,000 lien on the property.

The club also has had trouble attracting members, according to John Tinios, owner of the Galley Hatch restaurant in Portsmouth and the club’s secretary. Tinios said that the club was only half full (its target is 275 members) and that members are either going to have to increase their contributions, or the club is going to have borrow more money to cover expenses.

“The members have to make a decision to increase their dues to take care of operational shortfalls,” Tinios said. Tinios would not disclose the proposed rate hike or the extent of the shortfall.

Members already pay $75,000 a year for a voting membership.

Benson started the club with L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International currently on trial in New York on charges of looting his company of hundreds of millions of dollars, and John Kehoe Jr., CEO of the General Chemical Company unit of Fisher Scientific group, before the Cabletron Systems co-founder became governor. The course, known for its beautiful and challenging terrain, was built on land bought in February 2001 from a partnership headed by Fisher Scientific CEO Paul Montrone with money from Benson.

After being elected governor, Benson still continued to show interest in the golf course, personally signing off on partial discharge documents for Soft Draw investments, his limited partnership. Soft Draw lent the golf course another $4.7 million last August, bringing the total mortgage up to $16.7 million, though at that time the Soft Draw papers were signed by Angela Blaisdell, a longtime Benson aide.

Tinios said that the club is considering getting more money from Soft Draw, as well as other funding sources.

“Everything is in flux right now,” Tinios said.

Calls to Benson’s business office and at the State House were not returned by deadline.

Tinios blamed the club’s financial troubles on the economy.

“We built a high-end club in the middle of a recession,” he said. “At first we had an excellent response, but the stock market was killed. It’s a great product. It’s a beautiful golf course. I’m sure it will fill up over time. We just hit a bump in the road.”

That economic bump could have political ramifications for Benson. Critics have faulted the governor for his involvement and investment in the golf course because it is regulated by officials from the state Department of Environmental Services, including overseeing the golf club’s wetlands mitigation work.

The golf course wasn’t doing things exactly according to plan, so there will have to be additional review, said Dori Wiggin, who oversees the project for the state Wetlands Bureau.

“It’s still approved, and on the whole they are still on schedule and in compliance,” she said.

DES also has to review the golf course’s annual report of its water withdrawals. Because it has been a relatively wet year, DES officials don’t see any major issues, said Brandon Kernen, a DES hydrogeologist.

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