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Dunedin Country Club, city struggling to restructure lease deal

A golfer putts out as the rest of the foursome watches during a 2007 round at Dunedin Country Club. Golfing memberships at the club have dropped to fewer than 200.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times (2007)

A golfer putts out as the rest of the foursome watches during a 2007 round at Dunedin Country Club. Golfing memberships at the club have dropped to fewer than 200.

DUNEDIN — The Dunedin Country Club, struggling with a sudden drop in revenue and membership, came to the city with a request: Help us manage our rough finances by altering our lease on the publicly owned facility. The commission agreed.

That was 21 months ago. Membership has dwindled, debts have ballooned and, although options have been discussed, the fate of one of Dunedin's most controversial assets remains uncertain.

"This is an embarrassment. It's ridiculous," Commissioner David Carson said Thursday during a crowded public workshop at City Hall. "I'm discouraged and disappointed that it has taken this long."

After nearly two years of negotiation, the hiring of a consultant for about $25,000 and several false starts, the city and club remain at a standstill over a decades-old licensing agreement demanding regular rent payments from club management.

That accord now chafes on both sides.

The club, whose golfing memberships have dropped to fewer than 200, owes about $92,000 in back rent to the city, said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. The club volunteered to pay $41,000 but was instructed to keep the money until negotiations end.

Commissioners, whose budget shrank by $3.5 million this year, say they would like the extra cash but predict a default if they demanded the club pay up.

"I can't tell you how frustrated the membership of the country club is," said Jack Norton, a director on the club's board. "They're frustrated. They're angry. They want to know what's going to happen."

Dunedin residents like Angela Murphy, a five-year club member, say the city should revise the agreement with liabilities lessened and club leadership unchanged. Demanding rent from the club, which manages a 126-acre property topped with a golf course, pro shop and clubhouse, puts too much of a burden on the nonprofit's strained finances.

"Most of us are working-class people. We are not elite people," Murphy said. "Some of us are hanging on by our fingernails."

Other residents, like former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth, say ignoring the club's debts would be an unfair subsidy. The city could inject that money into its operating budget, where it could deflect layoffs and benefit the 37,000 Dunedin taxpayers who may have no stake in the club's survival.

"There has always been a desire to maintain the current relationship, as it does have some history," Hackworth said. "That may be an unrealistic desire. The world has changed. The golf business has changed."

Though no formal approval has been made, commissioners said a "hybrid" agreement allowing city officials, the club's board and a professional management group to share the land's operation may be the next step in negotiations. City officials hope to finalize an agreement by the end of August.

The hybrid option, one of five proposed, is the closest to compromise for both sides. Bidding companies would compete for a chance to manage the operation and take a cut of the course's revenue, according to city documents. Commissioners and the club's board of directors would retain influence over management, marketing and new projects.

"If it were structured right and they respected the membership and didn't try to be bullies, it may be a solution," said Murphy, who added the option may be more helpful than further delays. "Anything that goes on for 22 months, someone's being unreasonable."

At least four firms have shown interest in investing in and managing both the country club and St. Andrews Links, a smaller city-operated course next to the club on Palm Boulevard. City officials would not say whether repaying the club's outstanding debts would be a part of negotiations.

There's a "certain amount of salesmanship" involved in the proposal process, DiSpirito said. "We're not naive about that."

Former member Warren Wylie said he worried club members, who pay about $5,000 a year in dues and fees, would be hurt if the club's operation was disrupted.

"If this club goes down the toilet," Wylie said, "an awful lot of people will suffer."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin Country Club, city struggling to restructure lease deal 06/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 11, 2009 8:31pm]

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