DUNEDIN — Improved oversight and maintenance might be on tap for the Stirling Links Golf Course, say city officials who are grappling with the current operators' request that they be allowed to terminate their management contract.
Officials say they saw the request coming.
Last fall, Billy Casper, the national firm that has run the city-owned Stirling Links since 2010, had asked the city to defer rent payments because the course and golf industry were struggling financially. There were complaints from the public and city commissioners about the course's poor condition.
So it was no surprise last month when, city officials said, Billy Casper asked to throw in the towel in mid July, before the slow season hits. The contract isn't set to expire until 2020.
At the advice of their lawyer, city commissioners last week unanimously rejected the golf management firm's bid to bow out, saying that letting Billy Casper violate its contract would hurt residents and open up the firm to a lawsuit.
Instead, they directed the city attorney to try to negotiate a more amenable termination date and financial remedy.
Once that's resolved, they plan to follow staff's recommendation to begin a roughly four-month process to find a new vendor that would operate the course under supervision of the nearby privately owned Dunedin Golf Club (whose board had also offered to assume operations itself).
Two Billy Casper senior staffers and media team did not return messages seeking comment.
"It's the best of both worlds," said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "It essentially puts the management of (the Links) in the oversight of an operation that's next door, does this very well, and has a long history of extremely high quality and expertise."
DiSpirito and city parks/recreation director Vince Gizzi said staff based its recommendation on the advice of National Golf Foundation expert Richard Singer, who has long touted operating both courses as a single brand to allow for better marketing and programming. Also, they said, the country club might finally help the Links increase revenues.
Other options had included absorbing the course back into the city recreation department and hiring Billy Casper staff to operate it at a cost deficit of about $70,000 a year, or stripping residents of an amenity and converting the space into a park.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.