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End could be near for Pinellas County's Airco Golf Course

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport runs Airco Golf Course, which took a beating from the economy, rain and oppressive heat.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2008)

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport runs Airco Golf Course, which took a beating from the economy, rain and oppressive heat.

CLEARWATER

The pins could be pulled by next summer on Airco Golf Course.

With use declining, the county will consider whether to shutter one of the few publicly run championship courses in the Tampa Bay area, said Noah Lagos, director of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which runs the course on county land.

Rounds at the course, built in 1961, fell 14 percent over the last year. Besides the recession, course director Larry Thomas blamed heavy rains and then heavy heat this year for turning off golfers.

The airport says it lost $425,000 since 2001 improving and running the course, although this was the only year it lost money on annual operations, Thomas said. He said the exact loss for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was unavailable.

It doesn't help Airco's future that the airport has plans to eventually turn the 129-acre course into a business park.

"We've gotten people who come in here, who say, 'You guys are still open? We thought you had closed,' " Thomas said.

Still, its affordable prices and central location made it a destination for budget-conscious duffers. Golfer Demetri Kangas, 39, plays in a league there because of its proximity to his communications industry job.

"I think it's good enough for buddies getting together and having a good time," Kangas said.

Except for possibly two hotel sites, nothing will be built on the site until money is found to upgrade Ulmerton Road to handle more traffic, county officials said.

But the airport has decided it can make more money off real estate than running the golf course. While a 2008 audit criticized the airport's upkeep of the course, the FAA frowns on airports subsidizing public recreation. Instead, it urges airport operators to get the best value they can for land.

A hearing to change the land use and zoning there for commercial and industrial operations will be Nov. 17. After state review, the changes could be set by next spring.

While the county said any new development on the site would be years away, neighbors suggest the airport is pursuing the land use changes now over fears about a constitutional amendment passing next year. If it passes, it could subject the changes to a voter referendum.

Lagos downplayed any worries over the constitutional amendment.

Some Feather Sound residents worry that the plans for the course could take away buffer zones that muffle the racket of the airport from their neighborhood.

They want the county to put in protections for buffer space and prohibit access using Evergreen Avenue to areas that will be industrial sites.

Without them, Feather Sound Alliance leader Mike Schlensker said, protections could be at the airport's discretion.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

FAST FACTS

About Airco

Golf Course

13690 Stonybrook Drive,

Clearwater

Rounds this year: 36,400

Rounds last year: 42,470

Cost to golf: $22-$28 for 18 holes

Annual budget: $1.4 million

Source: Airco Golf Course.

End could be near for Pinellas County's Airco Golf Course 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 2:00pm]
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