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Dunedin Country Club delivers big check to city — with a jab — in sparring match

DUNEDIN — Disappointed with the city's plans for one of its prized assets, Dunedin Country Club board members Wednesday responded with a surprising criticism: a $100,000 check, signed to the city, seemingly out of nowhere.

It's a welcome submission to a city that, like the club, has entered tough financial times. But the check comes during a strange stage of the city's negotiations, in which both sides have butted heads over the struggling club's future leadership.

City Manager Rob DiSpirito and Assistant City Manager Harry Gross met Wednesday with club president Judy Campbell, general manager Debbie Logerquist and treasurer Jack Norton to discuss the club's reaction to a Request for Proposal, drafted by city leaders and released earlier this week. The request would seek offers from firms interested in managing the Dunedin Isles Golf Club, a consolidated campus that would include the current club and the St. Andrews Links course next door.

That's when board members handed over $107,296.15, the total of the club's two-year back rent, and a short letter aimed at Dunedin's top brass.

"It was most disappointing when the City decided to issue a Request for Proposals," wrote Logerquist and Campbell, who asked that the city remove the club's name from the request. "We prefer not to be a part of this process, but will cooperate fully with the City in its effort."

The message from the club's leaders is clear: They don't feel they need any outside help.

DiSpirito said the club's sudden snipes contradict a former accord.

"The funny part is that they agreed to that a week ago," DiSpirito said. "Jack (Norton) was here at the meeting, we asked him if he was okay with that and he said, 'Yep.' I just think that apparently there was a reconsideration."

Campbell, Logerquist and Norton could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The city has owned the 126-acre golf course since 1930 and collects lease payments from the club, which runs the par-72 course and a full-service clubhouse. Citing dwindling membership and revenue, club members have consistently asked the city to draft a new lease that would retain current leadership and lessen their rent obligation, which was cut in half five years ago by the city.

It has since been readjusted back to 5 percent of annual gross revenue, meaning this year's rent, due Nov. 30, will likely total about $100,000. Norton said the club, which has lost nearly $750,000 in the past three years, could afford the payment.

His confidence notwithstanding, city officials say the current arrangement, strapped with losses and past lease delinquencies, isn't working.

"This whole thing turned on (the club) treasurer's repeated acknowledgement that they didn't think they had the funds to keep up with the licensing agreement," DiSpirito said. "That changed everything."

The request could bring in an outside investor or management firm to pump money into the club and, consequently, city coffers. Responding proposals are due in early August. The city hopes to begin any new contract by Oct. 19.

The club's financial history, though, may prove the biggest obstacle to finding new business management. The two courses in what would be Dunedin Isles lost nearly $1 million between 2006 and 2008. Although the club had more than twice as many rounds played as the Links during the same period, it lost more than three times the revenue.

DiSpirito said the campus could still be profitable, though, with the introduction of new "revenue streams" like merchandising, promotion and new fees.

"It's not all about the money," DiSpirito said, "it's about the energy and ideas and enthusiasm that comes with it."

Negotiations between the club and city have proved, at times, more combative than collaborative. At Thursday's City Commission meeting, club member and former Commissioner Bob Barber called the Request for Proposal pursuit, the most recent step in a 22-month negotiation, "the final slap in the face … (toward) good stewards of city land."

"I'm quite ashamed of this City Commission. I'm glad I'm not on this dais," Barber said. "Slap us once, slap us twice, you really don't care."

Commissioners, who unanimously supported pursuing the request, pleaded for peace between the city and club.

"This is so much not about us against them, and that's what everyone seems to be making it out to be," said Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski. "The community is really becoming divided over this. … The negativity that's spawning out there is not going to help anything."

"I have felt all along that we are partners with the club, but somehow it got twisted and turned by whoever out there that somehow we're at odds," said Mayor Dave Eggers. "I don't know what we have to lose with this RFP process."

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

In other business

Commission outlaws beach storage

Dunedin city commissioners voted Thursday to outlaw the storage of personal property such as boats, trailers and cars on the Dunedin Causeway Beach during the off-hours of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The vote, supported by each commissioner except David Carson, expands an existing ordinance that prohibits camping gear on the beach overnight. Some residents, describing themselves as sailors and beachgoers, spoke in support of keeping the beach open at all times, but commissioners felt the storage created a slight, but significant, safety hazard and blocked shoreline access. Those interested in overnight storage at the beach will be able to pay $10 for a two-day license or $100 for an annual pass.

Dunedin Country Club delivers big check to city — with a jab — in sparring match 07/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 6:42pm]
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