Airco's site near the airport is considered prime property for businesses, while the Toytown landfill would become a golf course.
By ROBERT FARLEY
Published July 28, 2003
The county-run Airco Golf Course next to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport will close. It may not be for a couple years, but the land is too valuable to be wasted forever on a break-even operation for duffers.
The county has bigger plans for its 123 acres, such as leasing the land for office and light industrial space that could bring big rent and scores of higher-paying jobs to the county.
But the county's days of running a golf course may not be over when Airco closes. Discussions are taking place to convert the old Toytown landfill south of Interstate 275 and Roosevelt Boulevard into a 27-hole public golf course. If all goes as planned, the timing will work out so that the Airco operation - including its 11 employees - can simply be shifted over and expanded at the Toytown site.
"That's the talk," said Larry Thomas, Airco's manager.
Discussions about converting the old landfill at Toytown have been going on for more than 20 years, said Warren Smith, the county's director of solid waste operations.
"Golf courses are excellent uses for closed landfills," Smith said.
Dozens of landfills around the country have been converted to golf courses, including the Mangrove Bay course in St. Petersburg.
Because of depressions that occur periodically as the landfill settles, it it not suitable for most development. But several golf course design professionals who visited the Toytown site several months ago came away convinced it would work well for a golf course, Smith said.
After 40 years as a privately run public golf course, the neglected Airco course was taken over by the county two years ago. County officials thought they could make more running the course themselves. Plus, they wanted to keep their options open to develop the property.
But the first two years under county control have been a financial disappointment. Though the number of rounds played increased 26 percent, the first year ended with a $5,000 loss. And rounds are down about 5,500 this year from last. Thomas said they hope to break even by the end of the fiscal year in September.
So why would the county think of opening another course a few good drives away?
Thomas is convinced a new course at Toytown could turn a regular profit.
"We have a 42-year-old product here," Thomas said of Airco.
The county's efforts over the past two years to improve the course could only do so much. But a new course in Pinellas County, particularly if it is planned by a nationally recognized golf course designer, could be a hit, Thomas said. There hasn't been a new public course built in Pinellas County in more than two decades, Thomas said.
Ron Garl, a Lakeland-based architect who has designed and remodeled more than 200 courses, said the average golf course in Florida costs about $3.5-million to $4.5-million to construct. On top of that, course architect fees start at about $300,000, but can run up to $2-million for the biggest names. For a clubhouse and maintenance complex, he said, figure in another $1.6-million to $2.6-million.
Discussions about making the move from Airco to Toytown are still very preliminary, Smith and Thomas said.
"I would hope they wouldn't just shut this down," Thomas said.
Meanwhile, county officials plan to hold a community meeting on Aug. 13 to discuss the future of the Airco property, as well as a 30-acre property just east of it.
The county has proposed rezoning the properties to light industrial to accommodate the development of airport-related businesses and office space.
Neighboring residents in Feather Sound are particularly interested in the 30-acre property that lies between them and the Airco property.
Community fears that the abutting property would be developed with hangars are unfounded, said Bob Humberstone, business manager for airport real estate.
The county is seeking to rezone the entire 150 acres as light industrial planned development. Rezoning the entire 150-acre property should allow planners to provide better buffering for Feather Sound residents, Humberstone said.
The community meeting will give residents an opportunity to weigh in on the type of uses they would like to see, Humberstone said, as well as which ones they would like to avoid.
Humberstone said he envisions airplane-related businesses along the runway and "garden-style" low-rise offices behind it.
It is one of several sites identified by the county as target areas for the creation of businesses whose employees earn above-average wages.
"The county's ability to use that to create some jobs for Pinellas County is key," said Richard Gehring, a consultant hired by the county to steer its redevelopment program.
"That's a real good site," said Derek Keys, of Cushman & Wakefield real estate company.
"As far as new dirt coming into the market, there's not much," Keys said. "And in the Gateway market, that represents a good bit of potential for Pinellas County."
The meeting will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 13 in the Holiday Inn Select, 3535 Ulmerton Road. The County Commission will take up the issue at its Sept. 23 meeting.