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Tarpon Springs seeks golf course solvency

This city's municipal golf course once was so shabby that pilots flying overhead used its unmistakable brown fairways as a landmark.

Today the fairways, greens and cart paths look a lot better, thanks to a city takeover of the course in 1996 and hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements.

"They're going to have to navigate a different way now, because it's no longer a brown patch," said Juan Cruz, the city's public services director.

Despite the physical improvements, the golf course's finances are still in the rough.

Golf course revenues in fiscal year 2002 totaled $1.376-million, $20,000 less than expenses.

That's not all. Until 1996, the course was leased for about 30 years to private operators who spent little on maintenance. Since the city took it back, officials have spent nearly $935,000 on improvements.

About a third of that came from the city's general fund, which also pays for police, fire protection, recreation, cultural programs and economic development, among other things. The rest came from the course's operating cash.

City officials want to make the course a better moneymaker so that it can repay the $326,000 it's gotten from the general fund.

With that in mind, city commissioners spent about an hour this week discussing ways to put the course on a better financial footing.

One idea is to eliminate the $3 discount that city residents get on their greens fees and replace it with a coupon included in city water bills.

City residents account for about 25 percent of the golf played at the course, and about half the course's members.

Another possibility would be to add a $1 surcharge on every nine holes of golf.

Together, those two steps could raise an estimated $170,000 a year for the course.

At their meeting Tuesday night, commissioners did not close the door on either idea, but they wanted more information before they move forward.

In particular, they'd like to know how golfers might respond to paying a little more if they knew the money would go toward course improvements.

"If we do the surcharge, let's explain it to the golfers; tell them exactly what it's for," Commissioner Jim Archer said.

To generate other ideas, city officials and course employees recently surveyed and toured similar courses in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. As a result, they plan to freshen the course's landscaping and rebuild the dilapidated cart barn, both of which now make a poor first impression.

They've also added items to the menu at the restaurant and are sending the beverage cart around more often to increase sales of food and drinks.

Other options include pursuing sponsors for specific improvements, adding a big-screen TV to make the restaurant more inviting and negotiating a rebate of what the city pays for maintenance on days when it's too stormy to work.

Better marketing is also seen as a key to the course's success. Despite its age, the course is the only such facility on Alt. U.S. 19 between Dunedin and Holiday.

"We could do more to tell our story," City Manager Ellen Posivach said.

In response to commissioners, city staff members plan to get more information and come back for more discussion.

In the meantime, they'll start on the landscaping improvements that will help the course make a better first impression.

"It's come a long way, and obviously, I believe, it has a way yet to go, but it's a true asset for the city of Tarpon Springs," Mayor Frank DiDonato said. "I think a lot of cities don't have assets like that, and it's only common sense that we protect that asset."

_ Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielsonsptimes.com.

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