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Dunedin hesitates to help club

Times keep getting tougher for the Dunedin Country Club, but city commissioners are wary of giving the course more breaks.

Commissioners this month took the first step toward cutting the country club's annual rent from $45,000 to about $20,000.

But several commissioners said they were concerned about the course's long-term viability. They agreed that a private consultant should assess the club's operations before they approve the new lease in January.

In response to requests from the country club, interim City Manager Harry Gross recommended decreasing the club's lease payment to the city so it can focus on regaining its declining membership and fixing up the course.

During the past several years, the club has lost nearly a quarter of its members, dropping from 370 to about 300, president Herb Norbom said. The club can accommodate as many as 450 members.

For the past 40 years, the nonprofit country club has leased the 135-acre course from the city for a percentage of the club's annual revenue.

In 2003, the city granted a major break to the country club, allowing it to reduce its annual rent to 5 percent of its revenues for five years. That lowered the rent from about $90,000 to $45,000 per year.

The city allowed this reduction so the club could pay for a new sprinkler system that would allow for more efficient use of reclaimed water.

Now the club wants to pay half of that reduced rate, or 2.5 percent of its annual revenues. That would lower the club's rent to about $20,000 per year, Gross said.

The club also requested that its annual payment in lieu of taxes to the city, which amounts to about $6,500 per year, be cut in half for the next several years.

In addition to its rent and the payment in lieu of taxes, the club pays for its own water, sewer and trash removal: a total of about $28,000 per year, Norbom said.

Gross opposed the club's request to cut the amount it pays in lieu of taxes, but he did recommend that the commission hold the payment steady at $6,500 a year for the next five years, so it would not go up every time property taxes rose.

Granting these kinds of breaks to a private organization amounts to stealing money from the public, City Attorney John Hubbard said.

"It's a bad idea to sacrifice the public's money to pay for their greens," he told commissioners at a meeting Nov. 16. "You will have a terrible time finding a public purpose for these requests."

Commissioner Julie Scales said she feared that the club is headed down a "slippery slope." She recommended that an independent consultant who specializes in golf courses be brought in to assess the country club's operations.

Referring to the club's nonprofit status, she said it's hard for a group of volunteers to run an operation that expects to spend more than $817,000 this year on maintenance costs.

Other commissioners agreed with Scales that a private consultant might be necessary before they actually approve the amended lease in January.

If the city approves the amended lease, Norbom said, the course will use the extra money to renovate the greens and to recruit new members.

"All the money will be reinvested in the course," he said.

Even though the city is facing tough times, Mayor Bob Hackworth said, it might be worth it to help the club.

"If it goes, the city is going to have to take over," Hackworth said. "And the golf business is not a good business for anyone to be in, especially the city."

Sheela Raman can be reached at (727) 445-4158 or sraman@sptimes.com.

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