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    County deal may keep summer golfers on links

    Pinellas officials want to push up the purchase of the Airco course to June to attract leagues and local enthusiasts during the summer.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


    If teeing off in the sweltering sun is your idea of a spectacular summer day, Pinellas County is doing its best to offer you that opportunity.

    The county was originally scheduled to take over the Airco golf course on Ulmerton Road in July, but officials now say they are trying to assume control of the facility sooner so that leagues and other golf enthusiasts can use it during the summer.

    Airco Golf Inc. has operated the 18-hole course for nearly 40 years on county-owned land next to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Airco's lease is up in July.

    The county planned to take over the golf course, fix it up and reopen it Labor Day weekend. But officials said Tuesday that they are negotiating with Airco owner J.O. Stone to take over the property in time to upgrade and reopen the course by June 1.

    That date would allow the course to attract local players during the off-season, said Larry Thomas, manager of golf operations for the county.

    "What we're trying to do is salvage the summer and get some summer league play," said Thomas, who was hired by the county in November to manage the course, which would be the county's first.

    Thomas said he has already been approached by at least three companies that want to use the golf course for their own leagues.

    Stone could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Ellyn Kadel, the county's real estate manager, said her office is looking at whether the county would truly benefit by taking over the golf course earlier than expected.

    Operating the golf course from June through September -- considered the off-season in golf circles -- will cost the county about $473,180. Budget officials say 80 percent of that can be paid for with golf fees raised during those four months. The rest, $92,630, would come out of the airport's reserves.

    During a full year of operation, the county expects the course will generate at least $120,000 for the airport's operating fund compared with the $88,000 that Airco pays now in its lease.

    Eventually, the county will have to decide whether it wants to continue running the golf course, use the land to expand the airport or turn the property into an industrial or business park. Commissioners agreed in November to operate the golf course for another two or three years.

    Thomas said he thinks play at the course, which has declined in recent years with the course's condition, will increase dramatically once the county takes over.

    Fees are expected to be about $30 a round during the off-season and $36 a round during the winter. That includes the use of a cart. Golfers wishing to walk the course would pay less.

    The only two PGA regulation-size courses south of Ulmerton Road open to the public are Bardmoor and Mangrove Bay. The Airco course allows public play, but not many people know about it, said Thomas, a St. Petersburg native who played at Airco as a youngster.

    "I think it's one of the undiscovered treasures," he said. "People forget it's there, yet it's so convenient."

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