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Golf club owner interested in Zephyrhills course

The city sued the current manager for back rent plus damages for her failure to make required improvements. The city also asked a judge to evict her.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


ZEPHYRHILLS -- A local businessman who successfully turned around the Valley Oaks Golf Club wants to take over the Zephyrhills City Golf Course from embattled manager Nancy Lester if the two parties can reach an agreement acceptable to the City Council.

Council members Monday night appointed City Attorney Tom McAlvanah to mediate negotiations between Lester and Valley Oaks owner William Krusen.

Council members said they were excited about the possibility of Krusen taking over the municipal golf course. Over the last year, Krusen has transformed Valley Oaks, on Wire Road north of Zephyrhills, into a manicured layout popular with local golfers.

Council member Elizabeth Geiger said Krusen could do the same thing to the city's course.

Krusen, she said, could turn the city course "into a first-rate golf course, one that people would be proud to play on . . . one that we wouldn't be ashamed to have the Zephyrhills name attached to."

The council would have to approve the transfer of the lease into Krusen's name. And the council would need assurances that any deal would resolve the ongoing dispute between the city and Lester.

The city recently sued Lester, seeking $28,000 in back rent plus damages for her failure to make required improvements to the course and clubhouse. The city is also asking a judge to order that Lester be evicted from the course for breach of contract.

Lester is fighting the city's lawsuit, but said in a letter this month that she would be willing to leave the golf course by the middle of next month.

Much of the lawsuit would be rendered moot, however, if Krusen assumes the lease and undertakes what McAlvanah said were plans for a full-scale overhaul of the course. McAlvanah said Krusen wants to close the course for the summer to plant grass and renovate the clubhouse. He said Krusen plans to reopen the course in September.

The manager of Valley Oaks said Tuesday that Krusen would have no comment until a deal is finalized.

But while council members seemed delighted at the prospect of Krusen running the course, they made it clear that any deal should include assurances that Lester's debts to the city will be paid in full.

Besides back rent, which has been piling up since August, Lester also owes $6,000 in taxes to the city and is liable, McAlvanah said, for a petroleum spill that contaminated a large area at the golf course.

If Lester and Krusen can strike a deal that meets with McAlvanah's approval, the City Council would then vote on the proposal.

Lester still has 29 years left on the lease she negotiated with the city in March 1999. She has operated the golf course since 1988, a period during which she was criticized at times for the course's shoddy appearance.

Lester has been paying about $40,000 annually to operate the golf course. The 18-hole, par-68 layout abuts the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.

McAlvanah said Monday night that Lester's attorney, Tom Rutherford of Tampa, gave him the impression that a deal was imminent. If talks break down, or if the City Council rejects any deal between Lester and Krusen, the city would proceed with litigation to have Lester evicted, McAlvanah said. The city would then have to close the course and seek bids for a new tenant.

Lester addressed council members Monday night and indicated she wouldn't walk away without getting something in return.

"I've spent every bit of money I had" on the course, she said, adding that she also paid an attorney $40,000 to help her renegotiate her lease with the city last year.

"And (Krusen) is just going to walk in and get a free lease? Maybe I don't think so."

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