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    Golf course buy guarantees green space

    Dunedin buys St. Andrews Links mainly to preserve the land, but eventually to make a profit.

    By LEON M. TUCKER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003


    DUNEDIN -- It's 7:30 a.m. -- and like a lot of days over the past 20 years -- Don Schwartz, Lee Yeckel and Wally Anderson met on the dew-soaked putting green of the St. Andrews Links golf course.

    The game is called 21.

    And though the rules may seem elaborate to the outsider, the simple task of being the first to sink the most putts is almost ritualistic for the three seniors.

    "This is our recreation," Yeckel, 89, said between putts. "This is what gets us out of the house."

    To ensure the preservation of the land as open space -- and with a $575,000 hand from Pinellas County -- the city purchased the 28-acre, par-3 course off Alt. U.S. 19 for $1.15-million in December.

    "We thought this is such a prime piece of land, wouldn't it be nice to make sure it didn't become an arcade," said City Manager John Lawrence. "The more we thought about it, the more it made sense."

    So, Dunedin is officially in the golf business. Now what?

    For now, the fees will remain the same and there are no plans to change the name of St. Andrews Links.

    "With marketing it right, getting the course in good shape and getting people out there to see what we have to offer, we can build up a pretty good customer base," said Harry Gross, leisure services director. "We're all pretty excited about it."

    While the city has high hopes for its latest endeavor, other cities in Pinellas County that own courses caution Dunedin about the ups and downs of running a golfing operation.

    "Up until about three years ago the golf course paid for itself," said Largo City Manager Steven Stanton, about the Largo Golf Course. "At one point it was generating so much cash that we were taking money out of the golf course and putting it into the general fund."

    Stanton cited increasing competition from other courses as reasons for the falloff.

    In more prosperous times, an average of about 90,000 rounds a year were played at the facility on 131st Street N. That number is now down to about 70,000.

    What's worse is by the end of this fiscal year, Largo city leaders are projecting a loss of about $184,000.

    "What Dunedin did is a good idea because golf is a very popular sport and it's growing," Stanton said. "It's probably the worst time to do it (because of the increased competition), but if they can get past this temporary problem, ultimately it will be a benefit to the community."

    Meanwhile, the three courses run by St. Petersburg -- Mangrove Bay, Twin Brooks and Cypress Links -- continue to do well.

    "As long as this golf course has been in existence, it's been a profit center," said Marshall Edgren, St. Petersburg's golf courses superintendent, about Mangrove Bay. "We're totally self-supported, we give a return to the city on a yearly basis and we pay for everything internally."

    About 84,000 rounds of golf were played at the 18-hole, regulation course on 62nd Avenue N last year, and as much as $500,000 in profits have been turned over to the city at one time.

    "I'm sure any golf course, given the right circumstances, can make money," Edgren said. "But all golf courses are different."

    St. Andrews Links has a driving range, an 18-hole course and is frequented largely by senior citizens. It was created in the early 1950s by Larry Hoffman and golfer Gordon Hinn. Originally named Oak Ridge, the course is less than a block from Dunedin Country Club.

    The course has changed ownership several times and, at one point, a developer wanted to place an amusement center on it. Even then the city opposed the idea and zoned the property for public and private recreational use only.

    Since the city took over the course in December, it has spent about $25,000 in landscaping, painting, replacing ball nets and other improvements. Other planned enhancements, according to officials, could call for new furniture inside the clubhouse, added golf classes and new equipment.

    City officials said plans for the facility will include resurfacing the parking lot, replacing the fencing and installing ball washers and benches.

    "It looks like it will be a moneymaker," said Lawrence. "I think this will be a piece of land that will quickly pay for itself."

    In exchange for the county's share of the purchase price, Dunedin will allow county residents to use some of Dunedin's recreation facilities, including its skate park and public pool at Highlander Park.

    -- Leon M. Tucker can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or tucker@sptimes.com .

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