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Audit says airport, county letting Airco Golf Course languish

Eighteen rounds by the waters of Old Tampa Bay at a modest price has drawn enthusiasts to Airco Golf Course for years, but a recent audit claims Airco should be better managed.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport owns and operates the 129-acre course, which was built in 1961. Pinellas County, in turn, owns the airport.

An audit released recently by the Clerk of the Circuit Court faults the county and the airport for poor stewardship. It recommends that the airport get out of the golf course business and hand over the job to Pinellas' Culture, Education and Leisure Department.

Airport and county officials agree with some of the audit's findings, but neither party is interested in changing the status quo. Their reasons are many, although both sides point out that the county's long-range plan is to develop the course with hotels and office complexes.

"There are a lot of uncertainties about the future of the course," said Pete Yauch, the county's director of public works and transportation, "so is it cost-effective to sink a lot of capital cost into a golf course that may not be there in a couple of years?"

The audit criticizes the lack of a formal maintenance and repair schedule for the course and takes the airport to task for providing only minimal capital support. In short, auditors think the potential of the course, both as a public amenity and a revenue maker, is not being realized.

"The golf course has just been left limping along," said Bob Melton, the clerk's audit director. "There's not an attitude of let's make Airco all that it can be."

The audit was focused on a 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, 2007. Some problems noted, such as damage to bathrooms and the snack bar area, have since been fixed.

Airport director Noah Lagos said the Federal Aviation Administration frowns on using airport revenue for public amenities such as the course. The current understanding with the FAA, he said, is that the airport is running the course on an interim basis.

That does not mean the airport is neglecting the course, Lagos said. Between $40,000 and $50,000, he said, has been spent on upgrades this year.

Paul Cozzie, Culture, Education and Leisure's director, said he's not interested in assuming responsibility for the course during a tough budget climate when the county is already struggling to maintain its parks.

Then there's the future development of the course, an idea the county recently committed to but is several years away.

"It's in no one's best interest to have it grow more popular because it will just make it harder when it comes time to have to redevelop that site," Cozzie said of Airco.

That said, Cozzie believes the course is being adequately maintained.

You can get a cart and play 18 holes at Airco during the week for $29.90 this time of year. The price is comparable to other public courses in Pinellas, and much less than what you'd spend at many of the area's private courses.

Larry Thomas, a county employee who manages the course, said he gets complaints from some golfers from time to time, but is able to address them quickly. He's satisfied with the support he's getting from the airport and sees no reason for any changes.

"My job is to offer the best product we can without spending a lot of money on greens renovation," Thomas said.

On the day before Thanksgiving, golfers at Airco enjoying the sunny weather praised the course, saying they don't expect anything fancy.

"All things considered I would say it's in really good shape for the price you pay," said 42-year-old David Tobiassen, an attorney.

Ben Pincus, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Central Florida, agreed.

"To come out here and enjoy a day of golf, it's not that expensive," Pincus said. "It's certainly up to my standards."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Audit says airport, county letting Airco Golf Course languish 11/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 29, 2008 2:57pm]
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