Sunday, July 30, 2006

Golf Club's closing hits close to home

Course faces uncertain future after Monday

By Seth Soffian
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

Barbara Ogle knows exactly how the people who live next to The Golf Club in Cape Coral feel.

A mortgage broker who lives along Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club, Ogle has headed an informal committee that for the past year has tried — with limited success — to keep homes from being built on part of the course.

"When we bought this home, this neighborhood was marketed as (having an) 18-hole professional golf course," Ogle said. "And the people that bought lots on the golf course paid a premium to be on the golf course."

With the course, which closed June 2, sitting in limbo for at least a year now, Ogle said property values have been affected. Some owners along the course have lowered asking prices for their homes by nearly $100,000, Ogle said, while other homes have sat on the market for nearly a year.

"Some of it is market adjustment," Ogle said of the flattening real estate market. "And some of it is because of the uncertainty of what's going to be outside of your backdoor."

That same uncertainty threatens not only residents next to The Golf Club — which will close Monday for what owners say is due to repeated financial losses — but potentially thousands of other homeowners throughout Southwest Florida.

As with the Bonita Springs and Cape Coral courses, Riviera Golf Club in Naples also closed this year and faces potential development.

All three courses represent what experts say could be a growing trend — that is, going from fairways and greens to foundations and wallboard.

According to the Jupiter-based National Golf Foundation, more golf courses closed nationwide in the first half of this year than opened.

There were 65 closures and 57.5 openings — measured in 18-hole equivalents — according to the foundation's Mid-Year Golf Course Development Update. The report predicts similar year-end results.

Florida, which has more golf courses than any other state, is contributing to the trend. In the first half of the year, nine golf courses closed statewide while eight and a half 18-hole equivalents opened.

"It's a real hard time right now," said Dave Smith, owner of S&S Golf Management in Fort Myers, which oversees about 10 golf course communities in Southwest Florida.

Increased costs for labor, fuel, fertilizer, insurance and other items have made golf less profitable while land becomes more valuable.

Rampant course construction in the past decade combined with stagnant numbers playing the game also has contributed to a glut of courses.

"Rounds of golf (nationwide) in 2005 were less than they were in 2000," said Joey Garon, vice president of operations for The Bonita Bay Group, developer of five gated golf course communities in Lee and Collier counties.

"What's amazing about that? In that time, you've had well over 1,000 golf courses built. You have less people buying groceries and you have 1,000 new Albertson's. Something's got to give."

Dennis Hillier, an attorney with more than 30 years' experience designing club membership programs for developers, said the trend is known as "decommissioning of golf courses."

"If they don't work financially, then the owners (have) got to look at other options," said Hillier, who is based in Boca Raton with Greenberg Traurig. "We think this will accelerate over the next 10 years as the market deals with the oversupply of golf courses."

The greatest immediate threat appears to be to courses with similar characteristics to The Golf Club, Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club and Riviera Golf Club.

All are relatively old for this area — built in the 1960s and '70s — and are owned by individuals or private owners independent from the homeowners around the courses.

Matt Noble, with the Lee County planning department, estimated more than a dozen golf courses in Lee County fit that description.

"That risk is there on some of these courses for the people around them that have no interest (ownership) in the land," Noble said.

Zoning changes would be required before most courses could be converted into residential developments, but that's not an impassible hurdle, Noble said.

"You have to be found to be compatible with the surrounding land uses, and your impacts have to be addressed," Noble said. "It's something that would have to be viewed on a case-by-case basis, but more residential (zoning) in a residential environment, those are typically compatible uses."

Courses in newer communities may be better protected in deeds and other documents from future conversions. But they aren't necessarily guaranteed to remain golf courses in perpetuity.

"There never is any protection, to my knowledge, that says this must be maintained as a golf course to eternity," said Bonita Bay's Garon, who has worked in golf and club management for 24 years.

"Nobody ever plans, 'Fifteen years down the road, this might be the case,' " Garon said. "(But) you never know down the road. Land might become so valuable it would happen."

As with the possible developments at The Golf Club, Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club and Riviera Golf Club, that could lead to more community protest and threatened legal action.

"Every case is different," Hillier said. "The only way they're really going to win is there's something in the chain of title (telling) you there's going to be a golf course there in perpetuity."

Residents along Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club already have learned that the hard way.

"Pretty soon there won't be any open space left in Florida," Ogle said. "It will all be homes and condos that are left on the market and reduced in price. There has to be some quality of life that is left here, and it cannot be all gated community."

Land's future hazy now that school interest cooled

By Jason Wermers
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

The Lee County School District has kept on buying land after backing out of a $26 million deal to purchase The Golf Club last year.

Did the loss of 175.2 acres and the potential for five schools hurt the district?

"It did not figure in the (construction) plan at all," Superintendent James Browder said. "It was something that came to us. It kind of blindsided us."

In essence, the district didn't really lose what it never had, he said.

In June 2005, The Golf Club agreed to sell its property to the school district. But a strong backlash by neighbors prompted the district to back off.

"I'm not willing to have that piece of property be the thing that splits our community," Browder said. "That's a city of Cape Coral issue, and I will fully support what the city of Cape Coral decides to do with regard to that property."

But the city, currently, has no plans to buy the property for parks, schools or any other use, city spokeswoman Connie Barron said.

Mayor Eric Feichthaler, emphasizing his role as an elected official, said he would do what he could to keep the property a golf course.

"But it is a private seller, and we cannot dictate what they do," he said.

Since pulling the deal off the table, the district has more than made up for the land it would have acquired from The Golf Club. The district bought four properties totaling 185.5 acres for $26.6 million.

It also acquired 9.8 acres at 1426 Del Prado Blvd. N. in exchange with Lee County for about 7 acres near Mariner Middle and High schools. The county plans to put a new library branch near Mariner, while the district plans to build a permanent home for Alternative Learning Center West, a school that serves as a last chance for troubled middle and high school students.

Elinor Scricca, chairwoman of the Lee County School Board, agreed with Browder that The Golf Club is a Cape Coral issue, not a school district issue.

She would not say the district has no interest in the property.

"I wouldn't rule that out as I wouldn't rule out the purchase of any land where a school may be placed," Scricca said.

Browder said the land would be used for schools only if the city bought the property and approached the district with a proposal.

"It would be a situation if the city opted to purchase the property and create some parks and such, and they felt we could be a positive partner in that," he said.

Neighbors fret on eve of closure

By Pete Skiba
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

Nice backyard views, rising property values suddenly threatened

Go back a block or two off Cape Coral's four-lane Country Club Boulevard where the houses show their backs to The Golf Club and tranquility reigns.

The neighborhood that circles The Golf Club remains a place where people say hello to someone walking along the side of the street, traffic is practically nonexistent and a sign tacked on a door says, "Come on in. We're in the pool out back."

But residents have become anxious about what could happen to their neighborhood with the closing of The Golf Club on Monday.

"We have suburbia out the front door, and wild kingdom out the back door," said Chuck Davis, 52, who lives on Southeast 41st Street. "I'd hate to see that change."

Davis points out the sliding glass door at the rear of the home he bought two years ago. In the lake on the golf course, a lone blue osprey stands looking for fish, frogs or other prey.

Otters. Egrets. Red foxes. Bald eagles. A stork named Walter, or Winston, depending on whom you ask, all have homes around the golf course.

"Walter has been coming back year after year," Davis said. "He has become so much a part of the neighborhood, we named him. Our neighbors call him Winston."

Residents bought their homes or had them built in the area around The Golf Club with the expectation that the course would always be a part of their lives.

"I moved in eight months ago," said Victor Ramirez, 38, another resident of Southeast 41st Street. "It is really bad the club is closing. This is a very nice place. I want it to stay nice."

It seems natural that people whose backyards have views of the golf course wouldn't want anything else in its place.

"The view is just so beautiful out back," said Nancy Singleton, a five-year resident of Southeast Ninth Court. "I'd like it to stay a golf course. A park would come in second."

Although residents spoke of their quality of life in the neighborhood, there is no escaping economic reality for those with golf-course views and for those without. Some said Wednesday that they believed their home values could be in jeopardy if The Golf Club was not reopened as a golf course.

The Parrillas — Bernadette and Julz — had a home built on the other side of Southeast 41st Street with no view.

"We built this house in 2001, knowing it would hold value with the golf course across the street," Bernadette Parrilla said. "Now we don't know what's going to happen."

But people in the area don't seem to be putting up for-sale signs and getting out because of the golf course's uncertain future. Streets in the area seem to have the same amount of for-sale signs as other sections of the Cape.

"I think people are selling their homes for whatever the reason other people in the Cape are selling their homes," said Jill Modell-Dion, a sales associate with Sellstate Advantage Realty Network and a golf-course-neighborhood homeowner herself. "I don't think The Golf Club is the major reason."

A group calling itself "Save Our Recreation" wants to make sure The Golf Club remains a golf course. The spokesman for the group is business consultant and former Cape Coral mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz. The group's Web site address is

The group announced that it would make sure any prospective buyer for the golf course would know that there are significant problems with water, sewer and irrigation-line capacities in the area. Easement agreements in place would not favor development, and development would not fit the city's comprehensive plan.

"I believe we should also make public, to a potential buyer, the formation of a well-organized and funded group of residents who are opposed to the loss of the recreational facility," Mazurkiewicz said.

Another Web site,, also has information on the issue.

Neighborhood residents opposed an attempt mounted by the Lee County School District to buy the 175-acre club and turn it into a five-school complex last year. The opposition worked, and the board dropped the plan.

"It looks like is time to put the sign up again," Davis said. "The sign says, 'Help Save The Golf Club.'"

A short history of The Golf Club

Originally posted on July 30, 2006

Final ace

Dwaine Roney, 60, will be remembered at The Golf Club as the last to get a hole in one. It happened May 25 during Thursday night league play.

He hit a 5-iron into the hole on the par-3, 175-yard fourth. He never saw it go in.

"I was just happy I hit it right at the flag," said the Fort Myers resident who plays to a 2 handicap. "But when you execute the shot right, you are always happy."

The ace was Roney's ninth.

The odds of an ace for an amateur are 12,500 to 1, according to The amateur record belongs to Norman Mankey of Long Beach, Calif. He has 59.

As far as getting the final ace at the club?

"That will be more trivia," Roney said. "Something for the memoirs."

Club champions

The women's club championship started in the early 1960s, and Doris Casserly won it seven times.

The 2006 and final champ was Eunice Macy.

Most of the records for the men's champions are missing.

Tim Shaw won the final match play title this year; Marty Howard was the stroke play winner.

Member's memories

For Ned Axtel, 84, Monday will be a sad day.

He has been a member since July 1975, playing faithfully three times a week, probably more than 4,000 rounds.

He learned the game at the course when he was 53 and watched his handicap drop from a 22 to an 11.

"It's been the primary enjoyment of my retirement life," Axtel said. "Upstairs at the club, we used to have parties and dinners, and there was dancing on Friday nights. There was tennis, a swimming pool and boccie. I had it made."

On his 65th birthday, the former men's association president had his only hole in one on the par-3 eighth. He also shot his career low round that day — a 77.

"I think I speak for 15 to 20 guys when I say: Where are we going to go? My kids said 'Dad, you have to keep playing golf.' "

Axtel will tee off Monday sometime after 8 a.m. for his final round after 31 years.

"It will be a tough day," he said.

By the numbers

35,000: Rounds played in 2005

6,763: Yardage from the back tees

1961: Year the course opened with nine holes

547: The distance of the par-5 10th, the longest hole on the course (from the back tees)

200: Approximate number of members

175: Course acreage

115: The distance of the shortest hole, par-3 seventh from the women's tees.

90: Green and fairway sand bunkers

63: Course record, by Marc St. Martin

50: Full- and part-time employees at the course

9: Number of ponds that come into play on the course


• 1961: H.D. "Andy" Anderson, Clarence "Butch" Duffala, Browning Wharton and Monte Hodo play first nine holes at Cape Coral Country Club

• 1963: Opened by Gulf American Corp. as the Cape Coral Golf & Tennis Resort

• 1972: Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite tie for NCAA individual national title, leading Texas to second straight team title. It was the first time in the 75-year history of the NCAA men's golf championship that it was played in Florida.

• 1974: Southwest Florida Junior Golf Association formed there.

• 2000: Sold for $5.5 million to Cape Coral Country Club Inc. (owners Gary Fluharty, Ron Davis, Bob D'Andrea), hotel demolished for Banyan Trace condos.

• 2001: Course sold for $3.6 million to Scott Siler; course and clubhouse renovations begin.

• 2002: $4 million renovation complete; Banyan Trace condominiums open.

• July 2005: Possible $26 million deal with Lee County School District, which wants to build five schools there, falls through.

• July 31, 2006: Course to close at 6 p.m..

Swinging spot fades into history

By Karen Feldman
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

On Dec. 31, 1966, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore in San Francisco, the war in Vietnam raged on and Charlie Chaplin was about to open his last film, "A Countess from Hong Kong," in England.

Meanwhile, in Cape Coral, residents toasted the new year at an elegant new hot spot: the Cape Coral County Club.

With valet and concierge service, a lobby done in Brazilian rosewood, and crystal chandeliers illuminating the new dining room, the club ushered in a new era for the town, which wouldn't become a city for another three years.

The club was the brainchild of Leonard and Julius Rosen, the city's original developers.

"Leonard Rosen used to say, 'People think it's a country club, but it's not. It's a sales tool,' " said Paul Sanborn, a local historian who served as the club's first general manager.

In its heyday, luminaries such as Count Basie, Roy Rogers and John Cameron Swayze made appearances. Tommy Dorsey and his band performed.

The Rosens built the club along with a hotel and the 18-hole golf course.

The complex changed hands and names over its 40-year lifetime, most recently in 2001, when Scott Siler and a group of investors bought it for $3.6 million and spent an additional $4 million renovating the club and course. They renamed it simply The Golf Club.

On Monday, the club that has seen the city grow from a toddler to a high-powered adult will close its doors, a victim of a hemorrhaging bottom line.

Siler, the managing partner, has seen the club in good times and bad.

"I've been here since '72," he said. "I started playing the course when I got here. I always just thought it was a terrific layout."

In those days, "it was the best thing between Miami and Tampa," he said.

The golf course was designed by Dick Wilson, a leading golf-course architect of the time. The first nine holes opened in 1961, the second nine in 1963.

The development company, Gulf American Land Corp., built a 100-room hotel to house prospective buyers.

Gulf American brought in people by the plane load, put them up at the motel next to the golf course, treated them to rounds of golf, wined and dined them and sold them land.

Mitch Haley, of Fort Myers, said his father was one of the original members of the club. This was during the 1960s when the family lived in upstate New York.

"He bought lots in the Cape and Golden Gate and got lifetime memberships at both clubs," he said. "In the winter, he and his buddies would board a plane from Buffalo, fly to Tampa, drive here, stay and play golf for a couple of nights, go to Golden Gate, play golf there for a couple of days, then go to the Doral on the east coast. It was a guys' getaway."

The getaway also was the site of the 1972 NCAA golf championships, when top golf pros Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw tied for the NCAA individual national title.

In 1974, the Southwest Florida Junior Golf Association formed there, giving players such as future PGA Tour member Nolan Henke an opportunity to hone their games.

The country club provided a social outlet even for nongolfers.

Fred Cull, of Cape Coral, joined the club in 1974 and remained a member for many years.

"It was the fulcrum around which most of early Cape Coral revolved," Cull said. "It was always a very desirable place, a lot of social events, clubs and organizations. There were many weddings. It was a social center — there was really nothing else."

Members gathered there on weekends for dinner and dancing to music by the Buddy Duo.

"It was a good time," Cull said. "You got to know everybody."

But as tonier places such as Innisbrook and all the Orlando resorts sprouted up in the 1980s, Siler said, "this got outdated. Rather than modernize, they kept lowering the price and lower expectations."

The hotel was torn down in 2000 to make way for Banyan Trace luxury condominiums, all with a golf-course view.

Siler and his investors bought the club and course in 2001, with the intention of restoring both to their former splendor.

Siler figured it would be a hit because it was close to new developments such as Tarpon Point and Cape Harbour, and it was a well-designed course.

For whatever reason, the club couldn't manage to make a profit.

"The members have been fabulous," Siler said. "It isn't the people that came and used it — it was the people that didn't that caused us not to succeed."