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Clearwater Country Club's operator wants to run Largo Golf Course

Largo Golf Course hasn’t made a profit in years, but an outside operator is interested in running it. To allow him, Largo would have to solicit requests for proposals and possibly let residents vote to lease it.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Largo Golf Course hasn’t made a profit in years, but an outside operator is interested in running it. To allow him, Largo would have to solicit requests for proposals and possibly let residents vote to lease it.

Greg McClimans runs the city-owned Clearwater Country Club. His arrangement with the city is pretty simple. He describes it as such:

"I do everything. They do nothing."

For the right to run the country club for the next 20 years, McClimans pays Clearwater 3 percent of his annual gross revenue, which he estimates will be $60,000 this year. He's also spending about $1 million on golf course upgrades over the next five years.

McClimans wants to do the same thing — sans the course upgrades, because he says it's in better shape — for Largo and its financially struggling city golf course, which needed $200,000 in city funds in 2011 and could need another $150,000 in 2012.

State Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, thinks McClimans can turn Largo Golf Course's finances around, and he told city commissioners so during Tuesday night's meeting.

"Golf courses need somebody that knows the golf business. Mr. McClimans is a 30-year PGA professional," said Hooper, who said he has no financial interest in a prospective deal between McClimans and Largo.

"He thinks you have a wonderful asset, as do I; it's in great shape. But I don't know how long you can continue to spend your citizens' money in that way," Hooper said.

Although Largo commissioners want to talk to McClimans, city staffers caution that even if a majority of the commission agreed to lease the course to McClimans, a deal couldn't be struck right away.

Unlike in Clearwater, where the city was able to negotiate a lease with McClimans without soliciting bids from other interested companies, Largo would have to go through an "elaborate RFP (request for proposals) process" that could take months, according to Joan Byrne, director of Largo's Recreation, Parks and Arts Department.

Then there's another potential snag: Largo's City Charter requires a voter referendum for any lease of city property for a period of more than five years.

But it's hard to imagine Largo voters turning down a lease if it would stanch the flow of city funds pouring into the course, which hasn't turned a profit since 1999.

"I'd be more than glad to hear a proposal from (McClimans)," said Largo Mayor Pat Gerard. "I know [the staff] is trying very hard to market it, and business is up a little bit, but clearly it's not covering its costs and won't cover its costs in the near future. Anything short of selling off the land, I'd be willing to listen to."

• • •

Largo Golf Course wasn't always a money pit. The city bought the 47-acre course, formerly known as Indian Rocks Golf Course, for $1.25 million in 1979, and the course made money every year except one until 1998. In 1992 the course netted $266,000, an all-time high.

The financial tide turned in the late '90s, though, and it never turned back. Gerard noted with frustration that the city staff promised a $2 million course renovation in 2006 and 2007 would lead to profitable years, but they have yet to arrive.

Byrne says unexpected forces have fated Largo's course, like many others in Florida, to financial struggles.

"Mother Nature has not helped," she said, referring to record cold winters the past few years. Byrne also cited last year's oil spill, the economy and a Florida golf industry she felt was overbuilt as reasons for the course's problems.

Largo's course hasn't been alone in facing tough times, but it is nearly alone in being city-run. Hooper noted virtually every city-owned course in Pinellas County is now privately run, like Clearwater Country Club, with one notable exception. The city of St. Petersburg still runs its three courses.

Jeff Hollis, St. Petersburg golf courses director, agreed with Byrne that times are bad for the golf industry.

"We've had challenges, too," said Hollis. The courses he oversees have returned more than $400,000 each year to the city's general fund, as required, but that caused expenses to exceed revenues the past two years. He has been able to cover the revenue shortfalls from his fund balance.

Largo's course ate up its fund balance a few years ago, though, and has taken money out of the city general fund to break even. McClimans, who also owns Brooker Creek Golf Club in Palm Harbor, says he has a few ideas to turn those numbers around.

Largo's 18-hole course is a par-62, shorter than the regulation par-72s like St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course. While the course's size may lead more competitive players to look elsewhere, McClimans views it as a strength in attracting women and younger players.

McClimans, 55, is a Pennsylvania native who served as the head professional at Clearwater Country Club from 1976 to 1996, when he left to run a driving range he owned on U.S. 19. He also used to be co-owner of Clearwater Executive Golf Course with fellow PGA professional John Huston.

While McClimans' finances have been good enough for him to promise Clearwater about $1 million of improvements to its course over the next five years, Brooker Creek Golf Club Inc. had a federal lien against it for $9,166 in unpaid taxes last year, according to Internal Revenue Service records. The club paid its taxes, and the lien was lifted in May.

Art Kader, Clearwater's assistant director of parks and recreation, has nothing but good things to say about McClimans, who ran the club on an interim basis before the city agreed to a 20-year lease in April.

Hooper similarly lauded McClimans, who he represents as a government relations consultant. Both Hooper and McClimans say no money is involved in their relationship, although Hooper golfs for free at McClimans' courses.

"The only time I pay him is on the golf course when I lose to him," McClimans said. "And that doesn't happen very often."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

Largo Golf Course's finances over the years

$1.25 million

Purchase price in 1979

$3.6 million Total cost of renovations and improvements

1 Years it lost money from 1979 through 1998 ($37,000 loss in 1983)

1

Years it made money since 1998 ($5,000 profit in 1999)

$266,000

Course's largest net profit, in 1992

$362,000

Course's largest net loss, in 2007

Clearwater Country Club's operator wants to run Largo Golf Course 07/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 23, 2011 5:31am]
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