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Editorial: Private UMass Club, aided with public money

Like many businesses, the 7-year-old University of Massachusetts Club in Boston couldn’t pay its way when it launched in 2005. But on the day a UMass spokeswoman announced plans for this tony club in the city’s financial district, the public was told not to worry. The private club would be self-supporting through membership fees and revenue from events.

It didn’t work out that way. As reporter Kristin Palpini explained in a story Oct. 20, the club has run at a loss for years and some source — we’re not yet clear which — has covered at least $3,997,000 in expenses that were paid through the UMass Building Authority. A spokesman for the UMass president’s office said no state or tuition dollars were used to cover the deficit in the club’s operations. But he declined to produce documents detailing how the nearly $4 million gap was covered.

As of Friday, an Oct. 12 Gazette request for financial records, filed with the president’s office under the state’s public records law, has gone unfulfilled.

We believe the public was misled about the club’s future financing. It might not have been willful, but the assurance offered by former UMass spokeswoman Jennifer Desai, and reported at the time by the Gazette as well as the Associated Press and Boston Globe, was misguided.

That comment may have been designed to mollify people asking why educational resources should be spent on a fancy club a long way from the flagship campus.

Now, we’re told by Robert Connolly, the spokesman for the president’s office, that the club, with a new membership director, will break even this year and run a surplus in 2013. The club operated for three years before the financial downturn began in 2008 and counts about 1,000 members — or two-thirds of its initial recruitment goal of 1,500.

We have no reason to doubt Connolly’s prediction that the club’s losing record can be turned around. But for now it’s only a promise, and the lack of specifics on how this played out does not inspire public confidence.

The club provides — for a fee — a place for Boston-area alumni to gather. Building community and raising the university’s profile in the state capital has value, particularly in a state with dozens of colleges with more visibility around Boston. Since the club opened, though, UMass grads in the eastern part of the state have a new rallying point: Gillette Stadium, where the football team is playing home games. That may or may not affect the club’s ability to sign up members.

If graduates are willing to pay the club’s fees and thereby keep it afloat, so be it. Joining costs from $200 to $700 for an initiation fee, with monthly dues of $33 to $110.

There is no reason to stick people who’ve never visited the top floor of 225 Franklin St. with the bill.

As state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg noted, after being briefed by the Gazette on the club’s condition, this project shifted its financial status. “It’s a question of credibility and keeping one’s word,” he said. “This is a commitment they made and, obviously, didn’t follow.”

Connolly insists that the club’s performance is in sync with its original plan. If so, we didn’t hear a spokeswoman make clear in 2004 that if recruitment lags, and UMass is required to cover a shortfall under its 10-year contract with private manager ClubCorp USA, it would need a bailout.

That would not have settled the feathers of those who think the university’s top spending priority should be education.

UMass President Robert Caret, who was hired after the club opened, is reportedly willing to talk about using club revenues to repay money that the building authority laid out to keep the club going. Caret told Rosenberg he would bring that question to the university trustees.

That sounds like another promise worth watching.

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