CLEARWATER — From their nest built high atop court lights, an osprey and a chick survey the activities of the endangered species below.
Clearwater's lawn bowlers.
About 15 of them gathered Friday morning at the Clearwater Lawn Bowls Club complex near the corner of Calumet Street and Alt. U.S. 19. This is their off-season; many members are snowbirds who have returned to their northern homes.
On this day, the lawn bowlers enjoyed the gentle exercise, the relaxed tempo and the friendly competition that the sport brings, all while acknowledging that their 85-year-old club may soon be gone forever.
"We have enough money to last two years. After that, we're down the tubes," said club board member Bill Farrell, 79, of Dunedin.
Declining membership has been a problem for the club, but ultimately, the final nail in the coffin may come from Clearwater itself.
As part of an effort to shave $1.5 million from its parks and recreation budget, the city wants the lawn bowlers (as well as some other organizations) to sign a partnership agreement whereby the club will assume utility and other maintenance and programming costs. Under this scenario, all resident and nonresident fees would be eliminated.
If the bowlers don't sign before June 1, the clubhouse and the rest of the grounds will be bulldozed, and the land will be turned into a passive park, a letter from the city warns.
Parks and recreation department director Kevin Dunbar said it's only fair.
"Should it be the responsibility of Clearwater to fund a private club?" he asked.
Voters said "no" with the passage of Amendment 1, he said. That amendment, passed in 2008, reformed Florida's property tax system, leaving state and local governments scrambling to cut expenses.
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Dunbar said the city doesn't want to see the lawn bowling program fail, "but it's time for them to take responsibility for some of the costs. By becoming more efficient, they can reduce some of those bills."
But club members say they already pay more than $10,000 a year to maintain the greens. They say the club requires no city staff and is relatively low-maintenance.
"We've never been a drain on the city," said Barbara Roller, 67.
Club members plan to sign the contract but are scratching their heads as to how they are going to absorb the new costs — the city budgeted $26,200 for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
That's far more than the club's coffers hold — and the club is only about 70 members strong.
To survive for another year or so, members will probably have to tap into a $22,000 memorial fund that is intended for capital improvements only.
Club dues have been hiked to $185 a member, but some worry that may backfire and trigger a loss of more members.
"If we lose 20 members, we're out 4 grand," said Bruce Miller, vice president of the club.
Still, others say it's a bargain for a fun sport that can be played by all ages. And members hope retiring baby boomers will replenish their numbers
"We need fresh new blood," Farrell said.
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In 1980, the St. Petersburg Times wrote that the Clearwater Lawn Bowls Club was the largest in the country.
That's no longer the case, but the club's facilities still feature 22 lanes of flat, manicured rinks, surfaced with powdered stone, wetted and rolled to make firm.
The club hosted the U.S. Lawn Bowling Association Championships in 1984, when it had 354 members. Seven club members are in the U.S. Lawn Bowling Association's Hall of Fame.
"That's the most in any one club in the U.S.," said Trevor Colby, 76, editor of Bowls USA magazine and a Clearwater resident.
Farrell is one of those Hall of Famers — the only one still alive. He's been to the U.S. championships 15 times, with nine consecutive appearances.
"An American record," he says with pride.
In the clubhouse is a picture of Clearwater 's original lawn bowling courts, part of a recreation complex originally built on the property where Clearwater 's City Hall now stands.
"They moved us with the promise of always having a lawn bowling building," Farrell said. He believes the club was moved to its current location in 1964.
Looking around the clubhouse filled with photos of players, as well as trophies and books on lawn bowling, he wonders what will happen if the club has to close.
"What would we do with all this history?" he asks. "Put it in the Dumpster?"