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Legislators withdraw bills that would put golf courses in state parks

A week after they introduced a pair of bills to let Jack Nicklaus build golf courses in state parks, Sen. John Thrasher and state Rep. Patrick Rooney Jr. withdrew them late Friday.

The reason: After news reports highlighted the contents of HB 1239, Rooney's office was deluged with calls, letters and e-mails about it.

"After much consideration and listening to the citizens of Florida, I have decided to withdraw HB 1239," Rooney, R-West Palm Beach, announced on his Twitter account Friday afternoon.

"Floridians spoke very clearly over the past several days on this proposal, and they are the reason I'm in office," Rooney said in a news release his office e-mailed reporters shortly afterward. "I appreciate their concerns and hope this decision allays some of their fears. Please understand that my sole intention in filing this bill was one of economic development, my main objective in deciding to run for the state House last year."

Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, made no announcement, either by Twitter or e-mail. But on the Legislature's website was a terse notice about his SB 1846: "Withdrawal from further consideration pending on Friday, March 11, 2011 4:04 PM."

An employee in his office said Thrasher, former state GOP chairman, had left for the day and would have no comment on the Nicklaus proposal.

The golf-course bills grew out of discussions between Hall of Fame golfer Nicklaus, a longtime resident of Palm Beach County, and Gov. Rick Scott, on how to promote tourism, according to Nicklaus' lobbyist, Jim Smith, a former attorney general and secretary of state.

Both bills would have required the state Division of Recreation and Parks to hire Nicklaus Design to build courses in state parks in every region of the state, creating a Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail around Florida.

The goal of SB 1846 and HB 1239: "to stimulate the growth of tourism and the state economy by enhancing the state's reputation as a premier golfing destination and encouraging the location of public golf facilities within Florida's existing state parks."

The bills both called for at least one Nicklaus-designed course to be built in state parks in all five regions of Florida, but with the option that there could be even more.

Rooney's version specifically named one park that would be required to get a Nicklaus course: Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County on the east coast — even though there's already a private golf course, the Jupiter Island Club, just 2 miles away.

The bills also said each course "shall be designed and built in an environmentally sensitive manner" but also "may include a hotel." The new courses also would be eligible for liquor licenses, according to the two bills, and they would have been exempt from city or county regulations.

Normally Nicklaus charges $2.5 million to design a golf course, Smith said. But for the Jonathan Dickinson State Park course, Nicklaus, 71, would waive his fee, Smith said. For the other four courses called for in the bills he would charge only a quarter of his fee, or $625,000 per course.

Nicklaus wanted to build the courses as part of his legacy as a Floridian, his lobbyist explained earlier this week. Smith could not be reached for comment Friday after the bills were withdrawn.

Environmental groups objected to the proposal. Some newspaper columnists and editorial pages derided it as "the worst idea ever" to come out of the Legislature. Even Arnold Palmer's design company disagreed, telling the Orlando Sentinel that "there are alternative options than using our state parks for 'new' golf course development."

Upon hearing that Rooney and Thrasher had dropped their bills, Andy McLeod of the Nature Conservancy called it good news.

"It's a recognition, perhaps, that the greatest asset to the Florida economy and environment is some of its precious state parks," McLeod said.

Florida's park system attracts 16 million visitors a year, and has twice won a prestigious national award given to the best park system in the country.

Meanwhile Florida already has more golf courses than any other state — more than 1,000, according to the National Golf Foundation, based in Jupiter. The World Golf Hall of Fame is near St. Augustine. The classic golf comedy Caddyshack was filmed on Florida courses.

Recent years have been tough ones for the golf course industry. Overall revenue for 18-hole courses fell more than 5 percent between 2008 and 2009, the foundation reported.

Among the courses that have struggled: Pinellas County's venerable Airco Golf Course, set to close May 15 after 50 years in operation. Rounds at the public course have fallen the past four years, and it was losing money — $217,000 last year on a $1 million budget.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Legislators withdraw bills that would put golf courses in state parks 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 9:44pm]
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