PALM HARBOR — The U.S. golf business is evolving, and the luxury Innisbrook Resort is looking to make significant changes to one of its four courses to keep up.
The resort’s owner, Salamander Innisbrook LLC, is planning to build 186 single-family homes and townhomes on a 53-acre portion of its Osprey North Course, adding to the 1,876 condos, apartments and homes that are already part of the nearly 900-acre Innisbrook community in northern Pinellas County.
The remaining 70 acres of the Osprey North Course is planned to be converted into a 12-hole “short course,” a design for quicker, more casual play that is gaining popularity in the industry, according to managing director Mike Williams.
Williams said the redevelopment of the Osprey North Course will not affect Innisbrook’s other three courses, including the Copperhead Course, home of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship.
Innisbrook’s plan marks yet another golf course being converted to housing, a trend seen in Tampa Bay and across the U.S. But Williams says the sea change at Innisbrook, which remains one of the nation’s top golf resorts, is a strategy to adjust to changing conditions, not a response to a declining sport.
“We think our decision to build a short course is a great way to remain competitive with other major golf resorts,” Williams said. “We see the development of a residential neighborhood as a strategic way to grow our membership base and to get a membership base of a younger demographic and families that are really going to be an integral part of the future.”
Innisbrook’s plan will require approval by the Pinellas County Commission, Forward Pinellas and the state because it requires a land-use amendment. The application is scheduled to be reviewed at a Development Review Committee of county staff on Monday. The application is expected to go before the Local Planning Agency for a vote in February before going to the Board of County Commissioners in April, according to Blake Lyon, director of building and development review services.
In the most recent golf course redevelopment case, county officials were not so open to the idea.
Last year, the County Commission voted unanimously to deny a developer’s land-use application to turn the 96-acre Tides Golf Club in Seminole into a 273-home gated community on Boca Ciega Bay.
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The commissioners noted sea-level rise concerns and the property’s location in the coastal storm area in their rationale for denial. They noted the county’s comprehensive plan discourages rezoning of privately owned open space without “a comparable level of public benefit.” County commissioners agreed with staffers’ recommendation that the Tides housing proposal did not offset the loss of open space.
Lyon said the staff report for Innisbrook will not be finalized until after the Development Review Committee’s analysis.
But the application, prepared for Innisbrook by land use planner Cyndi Tarapani, makes a case for its compatibility with the county’s comprehensive plan. The 53 acres of the Osprey North Course slated for housing is currently designated as a mix of residential, recreation/open space and preservation; the owner is requesting a land-use change to residential low.
The site does not fall within the coastal high hazard area, meaning the county’s objective for directing populations away from those vulnerable areas would not apply, Tarapani wrote in the application.
The application states the proposed development would make up 3.4 units per acre, below the county’s 5 unit-per acre cap for the residential low plan category.
The county’s comprehensive plan prohibits the conversion of publicly owned recreation land to make way for development. When it comes to privately owned open space, the plan explicitly discourages zoning changes “in recognition of the limited amount of available open space remaining within the County.”
Forty-one of the project site’s 53 acres are currently designated as recreation/open space and require a land-use change to residential to build the 186 homes. The Innisbrook application proposes a compromise.
There are 19.8 acres surrounding the proposed housing site that currently have residential designations but remain undeveloped land. Innisbrook proposes changing the designation of these 19.8 acres to recreation/open space, meaning the net decrease of open space within the Innisbrook community if the housing is approved would be 21 acres, “a minimal reduction considering that the overall recreation/open space lands remaining with Innisbrook Resort will be over 597 acres,” according to the application.
Over the past 15 years, more than 1,600 golf courses have shuttered across the U.S. as interest in the sport waned and courses became less profitable. The 18-hole Tides Golf Club in Seminole, for example, shut down in 2018 after losing $200,000 despite buying golf carts, revamping marketing and implementing a happy hour, the developer’s attorney told the county last year.
But Williams said Innisbrook is not in the same boat. Innisbrook has not just its four courses, but 300 guest rooms, four restaurants, tennis and racquetball facilities, pools, a spa and a fitness center. It’s sports tourism.
Declining to provide exact figures, Williams said Innisbrook’s revenue has increased every year since 2015, with the exception of 2020 due to the closure during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are exceeding 2019 levels in 2021, and we’re forecasting for those revenues to be even higher in 2022,” he said.
The planning for a “short course” he said, was in the works before the pandemic and follows the lead of other renowned resorts across the country, like Pinehurst in North Carolina, Koehler in Wisconsin, Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Pebble Beach in California.
“The short course is designed to be played in a short period of time,” Williams said, “and it’s designed to be played by a family, by a group of golfers that may be down here for a golf junket that after they play their 18 holes and after dinner want to go out and have a fun little competition with a wedge in one hand and a beverage in another.”