CLEARWATER — The city government doesn't particularly want to spend $2-million to buy the clubhouse of the Clearwater Country Club, but city leaders are probably going to grit their teeth this week and buy it anyway.
"I really don't want to do it," Mayor Frank Hibbard said, "but I don't think we have a choice."
"If we're going to do it, now's the time, when we have the reserves to do it," said City Manager Bill Horne. "We think it's in the city's best interest."
The city already owns the nearly 100-acre public golf course at the country club just northeast of downtown.
But it doesn't control all the stuff that's needed to operate the course: the clubhouse, restaurant, pro shop and parking lot. That's all managed by the nine-member board of Clearwater Country Club Management Inc., which has owned those 6 acres for the last 85 years.
Now, as golf courses everywhere feel the pinch in a shaky economy, the country club is having trouble paying its mortgage.
If the city doesn't buy the clubhouse and the bank takes back the property, the city would have to contend with new operators. A worst-case scenario is that someone else would buy it and shut it down, cutting off access to the course altogether. That may be unlikely, but the city feels it needs to protect the investment it has in its public course.
"We could be left with a golf course that has some activity in the center of it on the clubhouse property that is incompatible with a golf course," Horne said.
The country club draws golfers mostly from Clearwater, Dunedin and the beaches. Some locals have been playing there regularly for decades.
The city would draw from its reserves to buy it for $2.1-million, the balance of the club's mortgage and debts. The city has no interest in operating the course itself: "We historically have not gone into the golf course business," said Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's director of parks and recreation.
Instead, the existing management team would stay and lease the property from the city for $200,000 a year. Currently, it pays the city about $23,000 a year to lease the course, as well as about $12,000 in taxes.
Under the deal, the club would continue to collect greens fees and pay its 50 full- and part-time employees.
"The golf market is depressed right now. We're strapped financially," said country club treasurer John Bailey. He said the city purchase would save the club a lot of money because the club wouldn't be paying taxes on the clubhouse anymore, and the city would self-insure the building. "Those are significant savings."
City Council members nearly closed the deal at their last meeting, then decided to clarify some legal language in the contract. They are to take up the issue again at Thursday night's meeting.
Council member John Doran, who has received e-mails from constituents questioning whether the city should buy the country club, said at the last meeting that he was leaning toward doing it based on what's best for the whole city, not just what's best for golfers who play at the public course.
"There's general agreement that the club has worked hard to manage the facility in a way that would be beneficial to our whole community," Doran said. "It has saved the taxpayers of Clearwater hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years because if we ran a golf course, it would cost a lot of money."
The course did well for years but is now losing about $70,000 a year, Dunbar said. People played 58,000 rounds of golf on it last year, compared to 65,000 in 2004 and 70,000 in 1997. The club has about 275 members now compared to 500 a decade ago.
The city and the management team plan to aggressively market the course to increase its membership and revenue.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.