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    Players won't let a city fee increase slide

    Members say making non-residents pay an additional $30 annually could doom the Clearwater club.

    [Times photo: Andrea Bruce Woodall]
    Members of the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club say that an increase in recreation fees for non-residents will result in people taking their games elsewhere.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Clearwater Shuffleboard Club members, usually a calm lot, are making some serious noise these days.

    Their problem: a $30 increase in recreation fees.

    It was enough to make them sign their names and addresses to a petition, march the list up to City Hall last week and demand the City Commission reconsider the matter.

    "The city is shooting itself in the foot," said Basil Kerrill, a shuffleboard enthusiast from Safety Harbor.

    There are more than a few who feel the same way -- 156 to be exact.

    The city, like other area cities, is trying to offset its expenses and make some recreation programs more self-sufficient. Clearwater is requiring non-residents to pay an additional $30 a year to play shuffleboard in its facility. That's 30 bucks the shuffleboard players didn't pay last year, bringing the total cost to $55.

    Club officers fear the fee increase will send players to cheaper clubs.

    Most of the club's shuffleboard players live outside of Clearwater, in cities like Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Seminole. But they are loyal. Some drive from as far north as Leesburg and as far south as Bradenton to play on what they say is the creme de la creme of shuffleboard venues.

    Visitors marvel when they see the grounds, at 1020 Calumet St. It has 52 courts, 26 of them covered to protect players from the sun. It also has two large rooms dedicated to international and national shuffleboard memorabilia.

    Each year, 25 tournaments take place there. In 2002 the International Shuffleboard Tournament comes to Clearwater for the third time since 1989, because it's the "best facility in the whole state," said Richard Buchanan, president of the International Shuffleboard Association, which has members in five countries.

    The event draws 100 serious shuffleboard players, ages 60 to 90, who face off with opponents from as far away as Japan.

    "That has to bring a certain amount of prestige to Clearwater," said Vince Crawford, president of the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club.

    Trouble is, the city is footing the bill for the club's utilities and maintenance, to the tune of $33,000 a year. City officials say they can't ask Clearwater residents to continue footing the bill for non-residents.

    "If we're going to provide a regional program, we have to recoup some of those costs," said Kevin Dunbar, director of Clearwater's parks and recreation.

    The shuffleboard players say that they, too, can play the numbers game.

    They operate the club's activities and they contend they have invested about $150,000 in the club since 1988. They raised $87,000 to build the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame last year and have also outfitted the kitchen with new appliances and funded a number of cosmetic flourishes, including painting.

    They fear their membership will take a nose dive after they start passing along the cost to their members.

    "It's absolutely going to be the demise of the club," said Ron Prevost of Safety Harbor, while practicing for an upcoming tournament. "We're just going to lose our membership."

    All this commotion has puzzled city officials. They empathize with the members' plight, but note it is one shared by all non-residents.

    In fact, the city gave the shuffleboard players a price break because their players have contributed to the program and many of its members may be on a fixed income. At the same time, Little League and soccer players are paying $70 a year for a non-resident card.

    "It's $30 a year," Dunbar said. "It's still a really good value."

    It does not appear likely that the commission will revisit the issue.

    "It's not a high priority for me," said Commissioner Ed Hart. "If we started doing that for everybody who protested, we would really be in trouble."

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