Just as the city of Dunedin and the private Dunedin Country Club seemed poised to agree on a way forward in managing the struggling city-owned Dunedin Country Club golf course, the country club did something completely unexpected and, at least so far, unexplained. Though the golf course is operating at a loss, the club delivered a check for more than $100,000 to the city Wednesday — apparently a payment of long overdue rent the club has owed the city for its lease of the golf course.
The surprise payment came as the Dunedin City Commission was preparing to vote tonight on a request for proposals from professional golf course management firms to manage not just the country club course, but also the adjacent, city-owned St. Andrews Links golf course.
Late Wednesday, city officials were unsure what the rent payment meant or how the club raised the funds. No matter. Both golf courses are public assets that are underused and losing money. Unless the city attorney knows of some legal barrier, city commissioners should proceed with issuing the request for proposals. It is time that both courses have the benefit of expert management and outside investment.
It has been almost two years since a consultant hired by the city studied the declining operation of the country club course. He said professional management was needed and the city should negotiate a new lease with the country club. Shortly after, the club, faced with budget problems, asked the city for a new lease that would lower the rent it had to pay for the course.
What followed was a long period without much noticeable progress on negotiations. But recently, the club's operating losses have grown, and though the number of golf rounds played has gone up, the operating revenue has been falling and so has club membership.
History and the current economy have made the search for a solution acceptable to both sides more difficult.
Since 1962, the country club has leased and cared for the historic Donald Ross-designed course, which opened in 1927. Through the years, thousands of Dunedin residents have been members of the country club, enjoying not just the golf course, but also the putting green, driving range, pro shop and full-service clubhouse with dining room, which the country club owns. The country club members have raised the funds to pay for millions of dollars' worth of improvements at the facility and still have substantial debt to pay off.
The city is caught in a similar vise. In 2002 the city purchased the smaller St. Andrews Links golf course to save the property from development. However, that course also is operating at a loss. And the city government, like most in this economy, is struggling to maintain city services as tax revenues fall.
"We needed a game changer," said City Manager Rob DiSpirito.
The game changer the city has in mind would put both courses in the hands of a professional golf management firm that would have to prove it had a good track record at other courses. The city foresees the firm paying rent to the city for the courses and handling all the maintenance and promotional work. Obtaining professional management for both courses is the right approach and especially necessary in this economy, with golf courses struggling everywhere.
Under the city's plan, however, the professional firm would not report to the city, as one might expect since these are public golf courses, but to the country club's board of directors.
Keeping the country club involved has a couple of positives. The city wouldn't become obligated for the club's debts, and the club's dedicated group of golfing members would provide steady business for the "golf course campus" the city envisions.
However, giving management authority to the country club board could lead to problems down the road. What will happen if the board makes a decision with which the city disagrees or it refuses to make a necessary improvement to the city-owned land? The city will have handed off its authority to the country club board. The city's proposal to add one city staff member to the country club board to represent the public's interest isn't nearly sufficient.
This management issue needs the best thinking of the city staff and commissioners. The city has been negotiating with the club's board on a new agreement between the parties — an agreement that would need to be extremely detailed to address all possible contingencies. It isn't clear where that negotiation now stands after the club's cash payment on Wednesday.
However, it is hoped the city can proceed with the request for proposals. It is time for the city to find out whether there are better options out there for management of its golf courses.