LARGO — In April, the city staff told commissioners that the Largo Golf Course, long a drain on the city's finances, had turned a corner.
The course, which is supposed to pay for itself, needed nearly $175,000 in general fund tax dollars during fiscal 2011 to stay solvent. Commissioners had expected 2012 would be the year Largo found a private contractor to run its golf course.
But in April, staffers asked to keep the course under city management for the rest of the year to show that changes in marketing and management were making a difference.
Commissioners agreed, turning away two private companies that had submitted bids. This month, staffers came back with good news: The course made a profit of $23,285 in fiscal 2012 (which ended Sept. 30) and didn't need the $75,000 in general fund aid that had been budgeted.
"I'm a pretty optimistic person" but "if you had told me we would be in this position within one year, even I would have been surprised," Joan Byrne, director of Largo's recreation, parks and arts department, told commissioners during the Nov. 7 meeting.
Now comes the really hard part: turning the course into a perennial moneymaker. Byrne thinks it can be done.
Amy Davis, the city's budget manager, gave commissioners a chart of golf course revenue forecasts for the next five years. The chart shows profits each year: $121,700 in 2013, $164,000 in 2014, $189,500 in 2015, $255,800 in 2016 and $304,300 in 2017.
"Can I frame this? Excellent job. Congratulations," said Commissioner Curtis Holmes, a strong advocate of private management for the course in the past.
Golf course manager Chip Potts acknowledged to commissioners that weather plays a major role in the success or failure of a golf course. A few bad winters could wreck the projections on that chart.
Potts lauded his staff for marketing and cost-cutting changes that made 2012 a success. Jason Wilson came over to the golf course from the city's marketing department in 2010, and Potts joined him last year as interim and then permanent golf course manager. (Potts still does his former job, athletic programs manager. He's a busy man.)
Potts and Wilson, among other changes, cut and rearranged hours for maintenance and pro shop staff, to trim benefits expenses and overtime; increased rates during the busy winter season; and expanded lessons and clinic offerings to turn casual golfers into course regulars.
In 2013 Potts and Wilson hope to get more people on the course with expanded beginning golfer packages, and they hope to increase advertising income by getting local businesses to buy ads on scorecards, in the restrooms and perhaps even in the bottom of holes.
They also want to try to schedule other events on the golf course — maybe an outdoor concert — just to get more people walking the fairways and enjoying the view.
"We tried to look at it not so much as a golf course but as a recreation site, as a destination," Potts said. "And I think that helps bring in new people."
Will Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.