Helen Malzahn swings hard and sends her ball soaring. She's playing the fifth hole at the Clearwater Country Club, and there's more on her mind than making the green.
There's also the matter of the city's plans to take over the clubhouse for the public 18-hole golf course.
"It sounds like a good deal for everyone," says Malzahn, who has played golf for 15 years, the last eight at Clearwater Country Club. "It's good for the city and it's good for the tourists and hotels, and maybe we'll get more people, which will help greens fees."
Nearby, Shirley Zuzack, 72, agrees.
"If it helps the club, I'm all for it," she says while getting into her red golf cart. "We need some help as far as the finances are concerned."
City officials are in negotiations to buy the clubhouse, which includes a restaurant and pro shop, and the parking lot, all on about 5.7 acres. The city owns the 97-acre public course, which stretches, in part, from Drew Street to Seminole Street, but doesn't own the club property at 525 N Betty Lane.
The clubhouse and the course are managed by the nine-member board of the Clearwater Country Club Management Inc., which has owned the 5.7 acres for the past 85 years. But club officials say that the slumping economy has led to a decline in membership and revenue. They're fearful they could have trouble making monthly mortgage payments for the clubhouse and want the city to buy it. The management team would then pay back the city.
Clearwater leaders are not enthusiastic. The deal would cost $2.2-million. But they feel they have no choice.
If they don't buy the clubhouse and the bank takes back the property, the city would have to contend with new operators. And a worst-case scenario — one city leaders doubt would happen — is that someone else buys the property, then shuts it down, cutting off access to the course altogether.
"It's something we'd rather not have to do, but who else is going to take over?" said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "We own all of the golf course, so it's only logical that we're the ones who own (the clubhouse) so we can make sure it's operated properly.''
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Right now the board has a lease with the city until 2032. When the lease expires, the property will revert to the city. The club operates on a $2-million budget and pays the city roughly $23,000 a year under an established percentage formula and about $12,000 in taxes.
The management team assumes all operation costs with the exception of insurance and pays for the 50 full- and part-time employees. Greens fees help pay for expenses.
The golf course did well for years, but the operation is now losing about $70,000 a year, according to Kevin Dunbar, director of the city's parks and recreation department.
A few numbers show why that's happening: people played 58,000 rounds of golf on the course last year. It was more than 65,000 rounds in 2004 and 70,000 rounds in 1997. A decade ago, the club had about 500 members. Now the number is 275.
The other problem is that the management team is stuck with a mortgage it didn't have until the early 2000s. At the time, then-City Manager Mike Roberto asked the team to build a new $2.5-million clubhouse, since the old one was leaky and rundown. He also said he wanted to leave a nice impression on visitors since it's the first golf course they pass when leaving the beach.
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Although city and club officials are still ironing out the details, they expect to have a plan in place in a few months for the city to buy the clubhouse and its property. The money would come from the city's reserves.
At this point, the operators are expected to stay on board, but pay the city $200,000 a year to lease the property and operate the course. Of that money, the city would set aside $50,000 a year for major upgrades and repairs. In the meantime, the management team has plans to aggressively market the course to increase membership and revenue.