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Archive for Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Lawrence gem

It is hoped new Alvamar board members will show the same concern for quality and community that guided the development’s founder, Bob Billings.

July 23, 2006

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Few university cities the size of Lawrence have an asset as valuable as Alvamar. The 3,000-acre residential and recreation development started in 1967 has been a jewel for the community and has made Lawrence a better place in which to live, work and play.

Started by the late Bob Billings, Alvamar has represented excellence in planning as Billings, a former Kansas University scholar and athlete, wanted to develop something special. He wanted to make Lawrence a better community and set high standards for residential development rather than trying to squeeze as many residences as possible into a given area with the prime goal of making money.

The dream of the project never was to maximize profits over quality, style and good taste.

Owning and running a golf course never has been an easy business, particularly in recent years. In city after city, municipal courses have hemorrhaged money, and private courses have experienced severe financial strains. Alvamar is no exception, but its private and public courses have faced the added competition of a city-owned course that pays no taxes, has free land and free water and is subsidized by city taxpayers.

In the past several years, some of Alvamar's stockholders have expressed concern or anger that they have not seen a financial return on their investment. Alvamar board members tried to initiate plans to tighten the operation and study possible changes.

This did not satisfy the dissident stockholders, and Thursday, a special stockholders meeting took place to force changes. A new board of directors was elected with only two members being retained: Beverly Billings, who has served as president of the board since her husband's death in 2003, and Bob Johnson, chairman of the Douglas County Commission.

Now, Lawrence residents and those concerned about preserving the quality and excellence of Alvamar will have to sit back, watch and wait to see what happens to the development under its new board. The board was elected with the intention of making Alvamar profitable. The question now is how much of Alvamar's uniqueness and quality may be sacrificed to achieve a return on investment for the unhappy stockholders.

It's a situation faced by many companies when confronting hard, challenging times. The two golf courses could be sold. Some are trying to get KU interested in buying part of the operation. (A look at Kansas State University's investment in Colbert Hills might kill a similar effort at Alvamar.) And many other actions might be initiated by the new board to try to turn Alvamar into a cash-generating machine.

The deposed board had good intentions, but there have been rocky financial times in past years and a lack of professional management. Individuals who admired Bob Billings and who wanted to participate in something good for Lawrence and KU were helpful in providing badly needed financial assistance at crucial times.

Surely, former directors now are using some hindsight and realizing they should have sought the expertise of professional club managers. They didn't, and now they are paying the price.

It's unfortunate, but that's water over the dam. Bob Billings gave Lawrence something of which to be proud. Alvamar is a gem. Will it remain a great asset, or will it be splintered into various entities for the primary purpose of making money for the investors?

Time will tell.

However, thanks from the community certainly go to Bob and Bev Billings, Alvamar board members and friends of Bob for what they provided for Lawrence. It is hoped the new board members will have a similar interest, pride and commitment to and for the community to keep Alvamar something special, not just a get-rich-quick real estate scheme.

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