TEMPLE TERRACE — This city, founded in 1925, was built around a golf course, making it one of the first planned golf communities in the country. The bucolic expanse of manicured turf, shaded by stately old oaks, is the heart of the town.
Trouble is, the heart is failing and draining the city's finances at a time when the government is already dipping into savings to maintain services.
That's because the city, which owns the golf course, is paying the $21,670 monthly mortgage payment to Wells Fargo on the $3.1 million loan it took out to do major renovations of the clubhouse and to build a golf cart barn and maintenance shed.
Under an agreement, the Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club is supposed to reimburse the city, but the golf club is having trouble making payments. The City Council agreed in March 2012 to allow the club to pay only the interest — $11,364 monthly — to the city for three years, and at that time reimburse the city for the money it essentially advanced.
Last month, club general manager Shaun McCormick and vice president Ed Cole asked the council to appoint a committee to "undertake looking at the lease agreement, current loan agreement and marketing efforts'' and come back with recommendations for council action. Instead, the council instructed City Manager Gerald Seeber and staff assistants to meet with the club representatives to come up with ideas to save money and help promote the club.
The council appears reluctant to take on more of the financial burden, but the city could lose a key facet of its identify should the club fail and the course close. That's because the land was donated to the city by the founding Palmer family on the condition that it be used as a golf course. Otherwise, the property reverts back to the family. A housing development could end up there, said council member Robert Boss, who also serves as president of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club.
"Clubs all across the nation nowadays are losing their golfing members,'' Boss said, noting that the recession cut into Americans' discretionary income. When Boss joined the club 17 years ago, 450 golfers belonged and the club had a waiting list. Now, he said, there are about 253 golfing members, plus an additional 500 lesser-paying members who don't play golf but use the pool, dine there and take part in the social activities. Full golfing members pay monthly dues of $199.
Some country clubs are closing, and others have stopped paying their mortgages in hopes of pressing banks for better financing arrangements, Boss said, noting that, because of its arrangement with the city, Temple Terrace doesn't have that flexibility.
Membership is aging, so the club needs to find a way to attract young families, he said. Chances are the city and the club will modify the lease agreement, which currently requires that 70 percent of the club's members be Temple Terrace residents.
The club, aided by the Temple Terrace Preservation Society, has stepped up its marketing efforts. Last year promoters succeeded in getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only 18-hole course in Florida on the list.
For three years, the club has hosted the Temple Terrace Hickory Heritage golf tournaments, where members use wooden clubs of the 1920s and dress in knickers and other period garb. Last year, the New York Times wrote about the tournament, the first mention of the golf course in the paper since the 1920s, according to council member Grant Rimbey, who, as a member of the preservation society, led the drive to get the course listed on the Register.
The course, which hosted the 1925 Florida Open and drew Walter Hagen and other big-name golfers of the era, was designed by Scotsman Tom Bendelow, who designed more than 600 courses across the country. Among them was the Medinah golf course near Chicago, and East Lake in Atlanta.
Boss said it's a challenging course, especially for long hitters, because the greens are small. Lines of trees force golfers to shoot what Boss has called the "Temple Terrace punch,'' which means "hit low and keep it out of the leaves, or you'll be there forever.''
Rimbey pointed out that the club is at a disadvantage because it lacks such features as tennis courts, a fitness room and a driving range. He recommended that the club create joint agreements with the city to let its members use the facilities at the Family Recreation Center and with the Terrace Hills driving range.
In a recent interview, Mayor Frank Chillura said that the golf course is a key part of the character of the city, but, noting that the city has been running lean in recent years, his priority is to maintain the city and provide services to the citizens.
"We don't really have additional resources to be helping any and all organizations.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.