Sunday, September 24, 2006

‘Save Our Recreation’ exploring options for closed golf course site


The pristine greens and manicured rolling fairways of The Golf Club have given way to weedy hills and overgrown fields since its August closure, but an effort by local Realtors, officials and business owners could possibly breathe new life into the property while preserving the Cape’s 45-year-old golf course.

A proposal that would develop hotels and condominiums on the 178-acre property while maintaining an 18-hole course, which would be handed over to the city, is currently being considered as a viable option for The Golf Club, said former Cape Coral mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz, now a consultant and representative of the non-profit group Save Our Recreation.

“To reduce the annual operating costs after development, we would give the golf course to the city and then enter into a long-term operational agreement with the city,” said Mazurkiewicz, adding that he’s had no official contact with city leaders and has not found a developer willing to carry the plan forward.

Currently, Save Our Recreation is a loosely organized group composed of numerous business owners and citizens, according to Chris Spiro of Spiro and Associates in Fort Myers.

“There’s a whole bevy of people that are involved in this endeavor,” he said.

Spiro and Associates is the marketing, advertising and public relations arm of BJM Consulting.

Mazurkiewicz, of BJM consulting, said the group still is weighing its options and waiting for a feasibility study before moving forward.

Save Our Recreation was formed shortly before The Golf Club on Palm Tree Boulevard shut its doors to ensure that “any future development of the property includes an 18-hole golf course,” said Mazurkiewicz.

Mounting debt prompted The Golf Club’s Aug. 1 closure after losing $3 million in five years.

The Lee County School District attempted to buy the property for the building site of five new schools in June 2005, but public outcry forced the district to withdraw its $26.1 million offer.

A limited liability partnership between The Gulf Club of Southwest LLC and Ryan LLC in early August formed Florida Gulf Ventures LLC. The joint venture recapitalized and remortgaged the club’s debt, said managing partner Scott Siler.

“There are no new partners, just partners that have taken a bigger piece of the action,” said Siler. “It’s the same guys. There are no new entities involved in this at all.”

Of the 400 properties that abut the course, fewer than 25 homeowners were members of The Golf Club, according to Siler.

“It wasn’t as if there was an outpouring of support for the place,” he said.

Alan Lynch, 50, has lived at 4306 Country Club Boulevard adjacent to the fifth hole for the past 16 years.

“It was a lifelong dream to live on a golf course,” said Lynch, who joined the club only once. “I just can’t play enough golf to get the $4,500 family membership out of it. I work every day of the week.”

A resident at Southeast 42nd Terrace, George Nixon’s home backs up to the ninth hole.

“In the five years that I’ve lived on the course, not once did a representative push a membership,” he said. “Nobody came knocking on my door to try and solicit my business, to try and sell me a membership. Business doesn’t walk to you. You’ve got to go get it.”

A golf professional for 26 years, Steve Anderson said the majority of public golf courses make a profit off development on the property, not golfers.

“You really just about break even on the green fees and memberships,” said Anderson, a PGA master professional at Mirror Lakes in Lehigh Acres. “It’s sad, but the only reason the golf course is there is to sell homes.”

According to Anderson, Southwest Florida ranks highest in the country when comparing the number of public courses, approximately 145, to the number of local golfers that reside between Lee and Collier counties.

“Generally speaking, it’s a tough road for a golf course to survive if they don’t have the potential to develop the land and sell lots of homes and property,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”

City council member Dolores Bertolini, whose district includes the course, said the city is unable to move forward with Save Our Recreation’s recommendations until the owners come forward with a plan development project.

“Until they come in with that, we can’t do anything,” she said. “They have to go through the process and that’s what we’re waiting for. But in the meantime, they need to keep the property in compliance.”

Club owners recently were found in violation of city ordinance after residents became concerned about the appearance of the course.

“I started to get complaints that it was overgrown and code enforcement went out, found the violations and they were cited,” Bertolini said. “Obviously we’re paying very close attention to it because we don’t want it to become a slum area.”

Siler said crews were out mowing the course Wednesday.

“We will make sure we adhere to the code,” he said.

A self-confessed “golf addict” who picked up a club at the age of 10, Lynch said that he’s for the contemplated upward development and remains hopeful that someday he will look out his window and see a reborn golf course.

“Remember when they used to have a motel there with 30 or 40 rooms? It was a profitable thing then and a good thing for the community,” he said. “It’s just disappointing looking out the window right now and seeing how it is ... they used to have the best greens in the county. There’s nothing more beautiful in my eyes than the nature of a golf course.”