By Gary Tasman
The Lee County School District's recent decision to drop the idea of buying and redeveloping The Golf Club into a five-school campus was a wise move for many reasons. While I won't deny that the city desperately needs more schools, I do not see the logic in taking this 175-acre jewel and sacrificing its greatest asset-green space-for classroom space. That is simply not the highest and best use for an established golf course with tremendous aesthetic value, as well as tremendous potential to be economically viable. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Before discussing ways to enhance the existing facility, I'd like to outline just a few of the reasons why the former Cape Coral Golf & Tennis Resort needs to remain a golf course.
In an area that doesn't have a lot of landmarks, The Golf Club is a significant piece of Cape Coral history. When it opened on Palm Tree Boulevard in 1963 , the Cape Coral Country Club was a dazzling centerpiece for the town as well as an effective sales tool for developer Gulf Association Corporation (GAC). In addition to a clubhouse, with pro shop, dining room and banquet hall, the club included a 100-unit hotel where GAC invited the potential buyers to stay. A social and business hub during its heyday in the 1960's and '70s, the club has been in a financial slump for many years.
The hotel was demolished in 2000, when local developers Ron Davis, Gary Fluharty and Bob D'Andrea purchased the property for $5.5 million. In place of the hotel, they began building Banyan Trace, a luxury condominium with more than 232 units overlooking the golf course. The following year, the trio sold the property (minus the condos) for $3.6 million to developer Scott Siler, who completed more than $4 million worth of renovations to the course in 2002. The club remains a popular place for banquets, business meetings and wedding receptions, and the condos that originally sold for $143,000 have appreciated significantly in the last three years, thanks largely to their golf course views.
Aesthetics & Taxable Value
In addition to the 200-plus condos at Banyan Trace, approximately 170 single-family homes abut the golf course. Most owners will tell you they purchased for the natural setting and relative tranquility of golf course living. Although the school district's preliminary plans called for incorporating a city park, walking trails and lakes within the acedemic campus, the reality is that classroom buildings, parking lots and chainlink fences would have dominated the landscape. Regardless for the need for more schools, I don't see how these types of "improvements" could possibly enhance the aesthetic or taxable value of the surrounding residential properties. Furthermore, The Golf Club alone paid more than $74,500 in property taxes last year, the city would lose in revenue.
If you ask newcomers what brought them to our area (besides the weather), at least half of them will say they came for the boating and golfing opportunities. Although The Golf Club has cost its owners millions in recent years, golf generally is good for an area in the long run-particularly an area that has only 3 other 18-hole courses. For one thing, home built in and around golf courses tend to command higher prices than other off-water homes. Also, where there are rooftops, commercial development follows. With the number of new hotel rooms planned for south Cape Coral, a nice golf course will help enhance the opportunities to market the city not only as a great place to live, but as a vacation destination, as well.
One of the most obvious problems with using The Golf Club for schools is that the area is already built out. Consequently, the demand for more classrooms in the southeast Cape is not as great as in other parts of the city, namely the north and northwest, where the most explosive growth is occuring and development has taken off. Further, I don't see how putting schools in a built-out area would do anything to alleviate traffic congestion, raise property values or other wise improve the quality of life for current and future residents.
Zoning and Other Issues
Even if the city had the unanimous support of area residents and an extra $26 million to buy the club, planning and zoning isssues would have created major redevelopment roadblocks. According to the city's comprehensive land-use plan, The Golf Club's future use is listed as recreational. Therefore, the city council would have to rezone the land and ask the state to amend its land-use plan in order to redevelop The Golf Club site for any other use.
Beyond the considerable resourses required to change the land use, the costs of bringing the necessary infrastructure to the site (utilities, storm drains, etc.) would be exorbitant. Also, if the golf course were taken off the city's current inventory of recreational facilities, it would have to be replaced with a comparable tract of land for recreational use. I know of no such property available in south Cape Coral, which makes the idea of redevelopment all the more unfeasible.
While proponents of the academic campus contend that new schools create jobs and attract people who will support local businesses and restaurants, I believe that The Golf Club can do the same at a much lower cost.
However, before this diamond-in-the-rough facility can shine as the gem it was meant to be, some changes will have to be made. Next week, I'll highlight some of the redevelopment options being discussed that could restore the club's economic viability.
Gary Tasman is a commercial real estate advisor with VIP Commercial-TCN Worldwide in Fort Myers.