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Sun City Center residents weigh responsibilities of golf course ownership

SUN CITY CENTER — They are retired scientists, school teachers, government workers and grandparents.

Sun City Center residents fit all sorts of descriptions. But should they add this one to the list: golf course owners?

The question rests before the community as it prepares to respond to the announcement last month that WCI Communities, working its way out of bankruptcy court, put three local golf courses on the market for $3.9 million.

The retirement community, which holds the right-of-first-refusal on two of the courses, must decide whether it should venture into an industry facing a triple threat: an economic recession, a glut of area courses and the influx of baby boomers, many of whom don't play golf.

Sun City Center residents also wrestle with some deeper questions that involve their very identity.

Are they a golf course community that should preserve the facilities at all costs? Or has the pastime passed its prime?

Some residents among the more than 500 gathered last week at a town hall meeting argued that golf forms the core of the community.

All property owners benefit from the courses, even if they don't golf, said Roger Davis, a resident golfer.

Countering criticism from some nongolfers, he argued that a lot of residents don't use the fitness center or swimming pool, but their dues help keep them running.

"We are a community," Davis said. "I pay for yours, you pay for mine."

Some nongolfers agreed, saying they moved to Sun City Center for the scenery of the golf courses, even though they don't play.

"I personally never would even have bought here if the facilities weren't available, whether or not I use them," Cleta Clark said.

Others stressed that the community was built around the golf course lifestyle.

"This whole Sun City Center and Kings Point was sold as a golfing community," said Frank King, who said he used to golf until he lost his leg.

"As the older ones die off, the younger ones may want to play golf again," he said.

Others disagreed, saying they worried that purchasing the courses would require a hike in dues — something many families can't afford. Some homeowners questioned why all residents should have to subsidize the golf courses when local use has dropped so low that community leaders want to market membership to outsiders.

Phyllis Hodges said she works as a volunteer in the community's information center and has never been able to find historical material proving that Sun City Center was sold as a golfing community.

Instead, it's sold as "an active community," she said, based on its dozens of clubs and other activities besides golf.

"We don't sell it now as a golfing community," Hodges said.

Community Association president Ed Barnes said he is trying to negotiate with WCI to give board members until mid-September to indicate interest in buying the courses. After that, the residents will have 90 days to make the purchase.

If residents want to move forward with the idea, the association board will hold a referendum for residents in late September or early October to get a formal community-wide vote on whether to buy the courses, Barnes said.

The courses could be bought by charging individual residents an assessment, he said.

The benefits of residential ownership of the courses include complete control over issues relating to maintenance, membership and marketing. But there are risks to consider, such as what would happen if the courses don't pay for themselves and homeowners have to pony up the difference.

An initial study reveals that operating costs could run between $1.5 million and $1.8 million a year, Barnes said. If the courses don't break even and residents refuse to cover the loss, the community association could go bankrupt, he added.

Plus, the courses are in such bad shape, the association would have to spend from $1.2 million to $4.2 million to fix turf and drainage damage.

If no one buys the courses, WCI must mow them and maintain them as green space under county standards, Barnes said.

If someone else stepped up to buy and run them?

"That could be the best thing that happens to us," Barnes said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Sun City Center residents weigh responsibilities of golf course ownership 08/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2009 5:30am]

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