DUNEDIN — The city is giving fewer than 200 golfing members of the Dunedin Country Club a sweetheart deal, a former mayor says, at the expense of about 37,500 residents.
"This has been going on outside the public's knowledge and they need to be engaged in the process," said former Mayor Bob Hackworth.
A new lease agreement the city is negotiating with the country club favors the country club, he says, not the residents who own the 126-acre, 18-hole course designed by famed golf course architect Donald Ross.
But Judy Campbell, president of the country club's board of directors, disagrees. She says members have been good stewards, investing more than $23 million in the course since they leased it in 1962.
"We're all just trying to do our best to provide for this course, which is a jewel in Dunedin," she said.
Dave Eggers, the current mayor, says patience is needed as city negotiators work toward a deal that's good for Dunedin. An existing lease agreement still has many years left in it, but the country club has asked for a new lease with a reduction in rent.
"We're trying to be very careful as we navigate choppy waters," Eggers said.
Conversely, Hackworth would like to give the process a nudge.
"It's now 21 months since the commission gave the direction to negotiate," he said. "When it dragged on forever, it became a concern of mine."
Hackworth, a partner in a publishing company, served as the City Commission's liaison to the country club before he was mayor. He recently organized a group of residents to pursue the country club issue. Others include Michael Ogilvie, a commercial real estate broker, David Thomas Jr., a senior executive with Raymond James, Chris Giuliana, an attorney, and Peter Kreuziger, a restaurant owner.
In 2006, with declining membership and rising expenses, the Dunedin Country Club asked the city to lower the rent or help pay for badly needed improvements. The city had previously given the nonprofit group a temporary, five-year reduction in rent. With no sign of better financial times ahead for the country club, the city hired a consultant to suggest some long-term solutions.
An August 2007 report from NGF Consulting of Jupiter said the city should negotiate a new lease with the country club. The city suspended the rent while negotiating with the expectation that a new lease would be in place in a matter of months, officials said. But negotiations continue nearly two years later. The city may choose to forgive past rent as well as future rent for the next few years.
The estimated value of the course is between $2.4 million and $2.7 million, based on the Pinellas County property appraiser's just market value.
At this point, according to Dunedin officials, the city has not received payments of about $250,000. The annual rent and other reimbursements for city services came to nearly $100,000 a year when the country club was paying full rent on the course.
That would pay for two or three city employees who might lose their jobs as city revenue declines, Hackworth said.
He would like to see the City Commission give staff new direction, considering a new idea: management by a professional golf management company. Since the consultant's report came out, he said, four companies have expressed an interest in running both the country club golf course and the adjoining city-owned St. Andrew's Links golf course.
"Dunedin's golf assets will continue to underperform and suffer low utilization until an experienced, well-capitalized operator is in charge," the group Hackworth formed wrote in a news release.
Here's what they suggest:
• The country club should come to the negotiating table with a new willingness to explore independent management alternatives and to consider the benefit of all Dunedin citizens.
• If the country club chooses not to cooperate, the city should declare the lease in default, activating a 90-day deadline for paying what's due.
• If the country club doesn't pay, the city should foreclose and put the operation of the two golf courses out for bid.
Eggers said negotiations are evolving and the city's negotiators are already exploring some different methods for managing the country club golf course. "You could hire an outside management company that would report to the board of directors," he said.
The country club may not warm up to that vision.
The professional consultant recommended that the country club continue to run the golf course, Campbell said, not a management company. So the country club is negotiating based on that premise with current city leaders.
To those who say suspending rent is subsidizing golfers, Eggers said the city is not reaching into taxpayers' pockets to pay for anything. The city just isn't getting the rent. And changing the way management is structured, he said, doesn't guarantee any better outcome.
"Right now, the model that's in place is a fairly conservative model that minimizes the risk to the taxpayers' money," he said.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.