Golf operations need 'just some tweaking'

A consultant says a city takeover isn't needed, but a professional manager is.

By ELIZABETH MIDDLETON, Times Correspondent
Published September 13, 2007

Dunedin's two municipal golf courses need more guidance and professional leadership, not dramatic changes or a city takeover.

That's the conclusion of an outside consultant who studied the Dunedin County Club and the adjacent St. Andrews Links.

"By no means is your golf system broken," National Golf Foundation consultant Richard Singer recently told city commissioners. "There is no need for an overhaul, just some tweaking."

Chief among Singer's recommendations is the need for a professional, trained golf manager to provide full administrative oversight of the Dunedin Country Club.

The club's governing board of directors would then become a policymaking and advisory board, while "day-to-day operation would be turned over to a professional," Singer said.

Currently, the city owns the Dunedin Country Club's 135-acre property and leases the 18-hole course to the club, a private, nonprofit organization whose board of directors is responsible for its management.

This spring, the club said dwindling membership had left it unable to pay for capital improvements and asked the city to reduce its lease payments, which were set at 5 percent of its revenue, or about $45,000 a year.

In response, commissioners voted in March not to grant any concessions until after they had an independent consultant examine golf course operations.

Singer's report, which he discussed with the City Commission at its meeting last week, does not recommend that the city take over operations of the country club.

Another recommendation to help raise revenue is to increase the number of fee-paying daily players. While there is a perception that the Dunedin Country Club is a purely private operation, the golf course is public, and anyone who pays a daily greens fee can play it.

To increase the number of nonmember, fee-paying players, Singer suggests that golfers be able to book tee times through the club's Web site.

"You need industry savvy to compete with the private sector," he said.

The report also suggests that the club change its tax structure. While the club is technically a nonprofit organization, the tax provision under which it is chartered treats it more like a private club and limits the amount of revenue it can raise from nonmembers.

If the club were a 501(c)(3) nonprofit there would be no restrictions on whether the revenue comes from club members or nonmembers, Singer said.

Singer's report did find "a very low standard of maintenance" at St. Andrews Links, an 18-hole, par-three course that caters to less skilled and beginning golfers. The study suggested that St. Andrews' contract with the country club for maintenance of both courses.

"St. Andrews is an ideal facility for fairly new players to the game," Singer said. Lessons and teaching golf beginners should be the primary focus, and the report suggests that "the city should not expect a return on its investment."

St. Andrews' operating budget is $609,000 annually. By comparison, the budget for the Dunedin Country Club is $2.9-million a year, and the club posted a loss of $75,000 during this fiscal year. In fact, Singer said that neither facility is a moneymaker but that municipal golf is another city service.

In response, commissioners said they were pleased at the consultant's conclusion that no takeover was needed and forwarded the report to the Dunedin Country Club, which will meet with the city manager to discuss possible changes.

In other business at their meeting last week, city commissioners:

- Unanimously gave their initial approval to the city's proposed $98.9-million budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year. The budget is based on a property tax rate of $3.56 in city taxes for every $1,000 in assessed, taxable property value. That's a 13.3 percent reduction in property taxes without any cuts in city services. "By implementing greater efficiency in operations there is no reduction in services to residents and no layoffs of permanent employees," City Manager Robert DiSpirito said. The city is losing 10 employees through attrition, although Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said, with relief, "we don't have to worry about libraries closing." Commissioners are scheduled to hold their second and final public hearing on the budget on Sept. 20.

- Rejected a proposal to reduce the breaks it gives groups staging special events by 10 percent. The city charges event organizers for event-related services such as traffic control and trash pickup, but officials often waive those fees. With money getting tighter, officials had considered reducing all fee waivers by 10 percent. Instead officials said they will decide whether a group qualifies for a waiver on a case by case basis. "We will balance the value of the event to the community compared to what we can waive," Mayor Bob Hackworth said. Commissioners did waive $12,620 in fees for this year's 44th annual Art Harvest and $1,878 in fees for the Suncoast Cycling Club's 11th annual Diabetes Challenge. Art Harvest organizers still will be billed for $8,985 in city expenses and the Diabetes Challenge will be billed for $1,337 in city costs.