LARGO — Last year, after spending nearly $175,000 in general fund tax dollars to keep the city-owned golf course afloat, city commissioners gave the staff a message: Turn the course around financially, or we'll find someone else to.
"Clearly, it's not covering its costs and won't cover its costs in the near future," Mayor Pat Gerard said in July. "Anything short of selling off the land I'd be willing to listen to."
However, the city staff thinks the course soon will cover its costs, and after reviewing the staff's financial projections, the City Commission opted to keep Largo Golf Course under city management for at least the next year and probably longer.
Two outside companies expressed interest in running the course for the city, but not enough commissioners were swayed by their financial projections. The process left the owner of one of the companies miffed he didn't get a chance to answer questions commissioners had about his plans for the course.
Bought by the city in 1979, Largo Golf Course was a perennial money-maker until the late 1990s. The course hasn't turned a profit since 1999, though, and several times has needed large payments from the city's general operating fund to break even: $165,000 in 2006, $220,000 in 2007, and $175,000 last year, according to city finance director Kim Adams.
The city staff presented rosier financial projections to the commission at Tuesday's work session. The staff projects course revenues of $885,000 this year, up from $801,701 last year, and continued increases through 2017.
With better weather this winter plus cutbacks in staffing and a more diverse marketing approach, the staff hopes it won't need the $75,000 in general fund revenue that was set aside in this year's budget to help the golf course.
The city's projections were lined up against projections from Sarasota-based Pope Golf and Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf, which both submitted proposals to run the course. Pope Golf estimated it could return $327,985 to the city over the next five years. Billy Casper estimated $450,000. The city staff projected a return of $326,500.
While Casper's estimate projected more money for the city, its contract would leave the city on the hook if the course lost money. Pope's lease agreement would protect the city from losses. Commissioners Curtis Holmes and Bob Murray wanted to explore Pope Golf's proposal.
"As a governmental entity, I think running a business like that, there's just too many variables for us," Murray said. "I would rather have a steady income stream."
Mayor Gerard questioned Pope's income projections, though, and said she was concerned the company would raise course rates. Commissioner Michael Smith said he was worried an outside company would fire the city staff and lose the business of course regulars.
"We said we were going to give staff six months to turn it around," Gerard said. "I think they are turning it around."
Keith Pope, owner of Pope Golf, wished commissioners had given him a chance to address their concerns. He was in the audience Tuesday night, but commissioners don't take comments from the public during work sessions.
Pope said he stands by his income projections, which he called conservative, and said he wouldn't have raised rates. He also would have offered the city's golf course employees jobs at his company.
"The reality is we can do it cheaper than the city. We can actually lower rates," he said.
If two more commissioners had agreed with Holmes and Murray, Pope would have had a chance to present that information and more to the commission at a later date.
"I wish them the best," Pope said. "I hope they can continue their success. I just think we could manage it better."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.