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Scruffy Airco course to get a manicure

The county will close the public course on Wednesday. When it reopens, it will have a new look and new management.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


After 40 years of operation as one of the few privately run public golf courses in Pinellas County, the Airco Golf Course will close Wednesday and come under the control of the county government.

Airco Golf Inc. had been leasing the 130-acre property next to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, but the County Commission decided not to renew the lease and try its hand in the golf course business -- at least for a few years.

While no changes are planned to the layout of the course, Larry Thomas, the new course manager, promises golfers will see many cosmetic improvements.

The course has been neglected from a maintenance perspective over the last few years, Thomas said. There are weeds in the sand traps and bare spots on the tees, greens and fairways.

The course will close for several weeks, and when it reopens on July 18, Thomas promises golfers will be pleasantly surprised.

The grass will be better fertilized and cleared of weeds. Trees and brush will be trimmed. Golfers will ride on a new fleet of golf carts.

Cart paths will be closely edged, and sand traps will be weed-free and filled with white beach sand. Golfers will be aiming toward new flag sticks. Staffers will be wearing similar golf uniforms. Bare spots on greens, tees and fairways will be sprouting grass.

"I think you're going to notice these things when you go out to play golf," Thomas said.

The county decided to take over operation of the golf course after a study indicated the county could make more money running the course itself. The lease to Airco -- which is based on the course's profitability -- has been averaging a return to the county of about $80,000 per year.

Thomas, a certified golf professional with the Professional Golfers Association, projects that under county management, the course will generate $1.47-million in business a year, netting the county $170,000 per year.

That projection assumes the course is better used under county management. The course hosted 39,000 rounds last year. By comparison, Mangrove Bay, owned by the city of St. Petersburg, hosts about 85,000 rounds of golf per year.

Thomas hopes to attract about 50,000 rounds per year at Airco. Better maintenance of the course will improve attendance some, Thomas said. In addition, the county plans to introduce such things as junior golf programs, golf leagues, tournaments, corporate outings and lessons to increase use.

John Tuset, who said he had the course to himself when he played at Airco this week, welcomes the promised upgrades.

"It's a nice course," said Tuset, 67, of Clearwater. "It has a player-friendly layout."

The course isn't overly long, Tuset said, which means "it's a good course for the average golfer."

He said he has always enjoyed the layout of the course, but in recent years, golfers had to "look the other way on the condition of the course."

When he played there this week, the sand traps were hard and full of weeds. The rough wasn't mowed in spots. There were bare spots on the fairway, on the tees and greens.

"The fees are a little high considering the condition of the course," he said. "People don't want to pay that kind of money to play on that kind of course."

In addition to making some upgrades, the course fees will be lowered slightly as well, in line with the fees charged at Mangrove Bay. The new winter rate will be $36 for greens fees and a shared cart; $31 in the off-season.

Thomas said the county considers Mangrove Bay a publicly owned success story, and many of the improvements were made with that course in mind. In fact, Jeffrey Hollis, the St. Petersburg golf courses director, was brought in as a consultant to help create a business plan for Airco.

"I think they can be successful," Hollis said. "They are going to be doing some things to make it more aesthetically pleasing."

Whether the county will maintain the property as a golf course remains to be seen.

The County Commission has only committed to running the golf course for three to five years. The contracts for the new privatized services, including golf carts, maintenance and the restaurant operation, are all for three years.

David M. Metz, airport director, said the fate of the golf course property will be decided when the airport master plan is updated this year.

"The property is desirable for airport expansion," Metz said.

It might make a nice addition to the industrial park complex, he said.

Interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster said county officials will consider the "highest and best use" of the property based on its business value in relation to the airport.

"If we intend to make the airport more of a commercial center and to accommodate foreign trade, the airport may need that property," Lancaster said.

Comparing the courses

Airco

Par: 72

Yardage from white tees: 6,088 yards

Fees: Winter rate will be $36 for greens fees and a shared cart; $31 in the off-season.

Mangrove Bay

Par: 72

Yardage from white tees: 6,112 yards

Fees: Winter rate is $36 for greens fees and a shared cart; $23 in the off-season.

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