LARGO — Telltale signs of Airco Golf Course's future are there, if you look close enough. Pro shop gear is 25 percent off. Time slots for spring golf outings are no longer offered.
Come May 15, the venerable greens will accept their last putts.
Pinellas County plans to close the course, which opened nearly 50 years ago on 123 acres next to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Rounds have fallen the past four years, and the course is losing money — $217,000 last year on a $1 million budget, according to the airport, which runs the course.
But county officials have another reason. Someday, they want aviation, office and light industrial buildings there, plus a hotel. Nothing is lined up yet, said airport director Noah Lagos.
Golfers, unaware of the closing, called the closure a shame Wednesday. The course attracted golfers looking for a casual value.
"Why do we need another office building?" asked Nichole Arnwine, 32, of Tampa after she played the 10th hole.
Told of financial losses, she and her friend Marcie Gurtrain, 50, of St. Petersburg shook their heads.
"I don't think closing a golf course is a good solution," Arnwine said.
But she acknowledged a problem that Lagos noted. People aren't playing as much golf with the economy the way it is. In 2007, 45,600 rounds were played there. In 2010, that number fell to 28,800.
"The great decline followed with what happened with the great recession," Lagos said.
The county has warned for years the course could be closed because of costs and visions for developing the last major airport parcel.
That said, a 2008 internal audit warned that the lack of appropriate repairs and upkeep could be leading to reduced rounds, though golf declined at other courses, too. The audit also accused the airport of allocating some of its costs to Airco, playing into reported losses.
The airport made some repairs on the heels of the audit, but denied any bookkeeping errors.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to be self-sustaining and generally bans diverting revenue to nonaviation business.
The closure will mean a full-time county employee and two part-time workers will lose their jobs. The private vendor for the course restaurant also has eight workers, and a landscape company has five.
"Why we need more offices is beyond me," said restaurant manager Cindy Carroll, 48, of Largo. "I know how that is, but we're in a recession. A lot of people lost money."
If the County Commission approves the closure as expected — the board voted for the development plans — the airport will let the grass grow to save money and encourage wildlife. It may take over the cart barn for equipment, and could use the restaurant for private events, Lagos said.
Given another year of budget shortfalls, turning the course over to the parks department hasn't been an option.
"I think a government-owned golf course that's losing money while it's competing against privately owned courses is going to be tough to justify keeping open," County Commissioner Neil Brickfield said.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.