Monday, June 19, 2006

Cape's Golf Club to close after losing more green

Originally posted on June 17, 2006

Cape Coral's first golf course — a popular social destination throughout the years — will close for good Aug. 1.

Mounting debt, a lack of play and an inability to find a suitable buyer are primary reasons The Golf Club, which opened in 1961, will shut down in 45 days, managing partner Scott Siler told The News-Press on Friday.

"I can't foresee a time when revenues would outstrip costs," said Siler, who indicated the course has a $3 million operating debt accumulated over the five years since it was purchased.

"I've been playing there since it reopened," said Cape Coral resident Steve Personette, 59, who is a member. "It's sad that it is closing, but I'll just find another place to play."

Siler said his group will pay all of its bills — total debt is around $15 million — and continue to look for a buyer during and after the closing date.

Longtime residents of the city and golfers have said the course's downfall may have been high greens fees and a failure to do more to recapture its place as the top social destination in the city.

"It is really a heartbreaker," said former city councilwoman Gloria Tate, whose family moved to the city in the 1950s. "The golf course, when it first opened, belonged to the people. It seems to have lost that over the years."

Since a failed deal last July to sell the course to the Lee County School District for about $26 million, Siler said two other potential buyers had signed contracts to buy the 175-acre facility. Both pulled out, Siler said, because they could not figure ways to make it profitable as a golf course.

What doomed the 18-hole course more than anything, Siler said, was that golfers weren't showing up to play.

"The beginning golfers weren't coming as much, avid golfers were not coming around and the most avid golfers got sucked out of the market," he said.

Golfers played 35,000 rounds last year at The Golf Club, well below the 57,010 at another public facility, Coral Oaks. The Golf Club's membership has dwindled to around 200, compared to 325 at private Palmetto Pine Country Club and 265 at Coral Oaks.

The Golf Club greens fees were $72 in season and $35 out of season in peak times. Coral Oaks charged $55 for residents and $65 for nonresidents in season and approximately $20 out of season. The national average, according to the National Golf Foundation, is $34.

Siler says ownership tried to control the cost to golfers, raising fees only $3 to $5 during the past five years.

Although rounds were up this year, the course was going to finish the year another $400,000 in debt, compared to $500,000 last year and $1.2 million in 2002.

"We just couldn't predict people would come and play golf," Siler said.

Members and neighbors received letters Friday detailing the course's closing.

"I just like playing golf here," said Cape Coral resident Alex Medinis, 16, a junior member of the club. "I've been playing here for three years. I've gotten better because of it."

Members were told they would be issued a rebate to cover their dues for the rest of the year as well as continued course services until the last day of play July 31.

Employees — about 50 full- and part-time — were told that if they stay until the club closes, they could each receive an additional $2,500.

In Siler's letter to his neighbors, he said: "I respect the impact that The Golf Club closing has on you and your neighborhood. Please know that we are working hard to ensure a smooth transition."

Those residents were primarily responsible for keeping a deal with the school district from going through. They complained that the deal to demolish the course and build five new schools would devalue their property and increase traffic to an unmanageable level in the southeast part of the city.

"When that deal didn't happen, what we looked at was the community wanted the golf course and would support it," Siler said. "We had a little more revenue, but not enough."

Siler said the club would have needed about $1 million in additional revenue and 8,000 to 10,000 more rounds of golf in a year to stay open. The course was on pace for about 40,000 rounds this year.

Now, one of the biggest pieces of property in the 116-square-mile city will go dormant.

Once it closes, Siler said, the owners will continue to do limited maintenance — cut the grass, monitor the ponds and consider what type of security may be needed. Eventually, grass will grow over the sand bunkers, and fairways and greens will be undistinguishable.

In essence, it will look like a big field with trees.

"This will never be a golf course again as far as I am concerned," Siler said.

The history

In addition to golf, the club has a rich social history, hosting dances, weddings, entertainers and community fundraisers. When early residents moved here and when perspective buyers toured the area, the club was the place to be seen.

"My husband and I would go there on Friday nights for dinner and dancing," said City Council member Dolores Bertolini, who moved to the city in 1986.

The course even hosted the 1972 NCAA Championships, when Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite tied for the title. It's the only time in NCAA golf history two players shared the title.

"It was the social setting," Tate said. "Our children got married there. There were even funerals there."

Siler and his approximately 50 partners bought the course five years ago under the entity of The Golf Club of Southwest Florida LLC, intent on making it a key golf destination in Lee County. Condos were built, holes were renovated, and after $5 million worth of changes, the course reopened in December 2001.

His business plan was to take advantage of "a growing community, especially at the higher end, no other golf courses (coming in) and a quality product," Siler said.

"If I had to do it again, I would do the same thing."

The course lost money from the first year, and the cycle never changed.

Added Bertolini, whose district includes the course: "We have green space; now, we have closed green space."

— Staff writer Pete Skiba contributed to this report.