Sunday, March 18, 2007

Burnt Store Golf course conversion plans


Another Lee County golf course open to the public and in close proximity for Cape Coral residents closed its gates Thursday, and development plans are in the making.

The Burnt Store Marina, with its own public golf course, is located on Burnt Store Road, just south of the Lee-Charlotte county line.

It’s the latest course to announce a closure or major undertaking affecting golfers.

Less than a year ago, The Golf Club at 4003 Palm Tree Blvd. in Cape Coral closed.

This week, residents around the Cape Coral Executive Golf Club gathered to discuss a proposed change in land use that would allow condominiums to be built on the site.

The privately owned executive course is open to the public. The owner is seeking the change to build up to six three-story buildings, with a total of 156 residential units, and 317 parking spaces. This would cover 9.75 acres in the middle of where the course now offers a view of the greens.

Business issues are driving each of the decisions.

The reason given for closure of the Burnt Store Marina Golf Course is financial. In a March 15 letter to the residents, the developer and owner, Will Stout, president of Realmark Group, says the public course has not brought in the revenue needed, resulting in great losses. He wrote, in part:

“Many of you who are golfers have made it clear that your personal preference is to play the other, newer and more challenging golf courses in the immediate area. This fact is underscored by the realization that only about eight percent of Burnt Store Marina community residents presently are members at the golf club, and that number is declining.”
Stout, who also is the developer of Cape Harbour at the southern end of Cape Coral, indicates in the letter he plans to work with Lee County to turn the golf course into an area of “attractive waterfront retail shops, first-class hotel accommodations, additional boat storage, more restaurants and other desirable improvements around the marina basin.”

A new concept

This is similar to what Stout developed at Cape Harbour, where community events have already started to happen in its own “downtown” of shops and restaurants.

This emerging Cape Harbour community has many pleasant small shops offering everything from art to fashion, as well as places to grab a snack or dine, a marina and other amenities.

The trend in community development has been to create small “towns” within a large city, making the residential development practically self-sufficient with businesses filling many of the shopping needs of people living there.

Another trend is for communities to include their own courses.

Craig Dearden, chief operating officer and chief financial officer for Realmark Development, said the use of older golf courses has steadily declined over the past 10 years because so many more complicated and challenging courses have been built.

According to Dearden, the only way to cover operational costs is to offer the course in equity form, including it in the purchase of the residence, “like another swimming pool,” he said, or in annual dues.

“We had no ability to bundle,” he said. Burnt Store Marina has been in existence since the 1970s.

In his letter to the residents of Burnt Store Marina, Stout also wrote:

“As most of you know, the course (which has been open to the public) was originally designed over 30 years ago as an ‘executive course’, very short by today’s more challenging golf course standards. Many of you also know that, over the years, the golf course has been significantly under utilized by both the community residents and the public at large. This has resulted in substantial operating deficits which are increasing each year.”

New courses more attractive

There are three reasons why the older courses are closing, according to PGA Master Professional Steve Anderson, director of Instruction for Greentree Resorts in Lehigh Acres.

Age is one reason, and one of the three courses owned by the Greentree company also is closing, next month.

The Admiral Lehigh Golf Club is more than 30 years old. It was built as an executive course, which is shorter, and it is closing because not enough people are playing it, according to Anderson.

“So many new courses are opening,” he said. “They have been adding three or four every year. In 2007, there will be five or six more. We have more than 150 courses in Southwest Florida, in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita, Naples. There are too many courses and too much competition. That’s one reason.”

New technology is the second reason.

“They have a new kind of grass, the very best green, and the most modern clubhouse, so much nicer, larger,” Anderson said. “To a lot of people, the 30- to 40-year-old courses are not so attractive.”

The final reason is financial.

“The third reason is that the owners can make 10 times more money if they can put condos and houses and commercial properties, instead of what people pay in green fees. Nobody wants them to close, but nobody (owners) can make enough money for the golf courses to stay open,” he said.

As a golf pro, Anderson receives statistics, which he shared. He said 1998 and 1999 were the best years for golf, 1999 being the all-time high.

“The last three or four years, it has been dropping each year by 5 percent,” he added.

Anderson said it started after 9-11, and the fear of flying had an impact. A not fully recovered economy also is a factor.

Aging players drop out

Cape Coral historian Paul Sanborn, who opened the Cape Coral Country Club in 1967 and was the general manager, provided his opinion. He said there are more closures, yet, throughout Lee County.

“And in Lehigh Acres and in Bonita Springs,” he said. “It was the oldest course, the one in Lehigh (closing next month). The only thing I would think is the increase in the cost of labor, pesticide, equipment, technology. I think people complain about the (high) cost of playing, but maintenance is very expensive, and they (owners) are not meeting revenues from players to compensate for the cost.”

Could interest be dwindling among the younger generation?

“I think there is a great interest in golf,” Sanborn said, “but the older generation, like myself, we stop playing, and the younger generation, they help their children with the Little Leagues.”

The cost of playing golf also is beyond reach for many younger players with children. Sanborn mentioned a recent advertisement offering play for $110 — and that was a “special.”

One avid golfer is Cape business owner James Bondy of The Letter Box Inc.

He said it is unfortunate that the people who bought these parcels of land for a golf course do not make enough revenue to at least break even.

Bondy is a member of the Royal Tee Country Club, but he used to play at The Golf Club, which has closed.

“It should be retained as a golf course,” he said of The Golf Club, “because there is just so much land available. If they turn that over for residential buildings, we are losing the land forever.”

He acknowledged that could happen.

“There is more tax revenue if they get apartments,” Bondy added.

Meanwhile, many homeowners near these courses are not happy with prospective changes.

Officials are tendering the idea of allowing some type of development at The Golf Club but neighboring homeowners are resistant to the idea.

Abutting property owners also are resistant to the proposal to change the land use at the Cape Coral Executive Golf Club.

Residents met Thursday to voice their concerns and formulate a plan to quash the proposal, which would change the land use from “parks and recreation” to “multi-family residential” on the city’s land use map.

“We’re little peons here trying to be one voice and let the city know,” said Colleen Simon, a homeowner on the golf course’s perimeter earlier this week. “I love Cape Coral, but I don’t want it to be Cape Coral, concrete city.”

That request will be reviewed Wednesday, March 21, during the Cape Coral Planning & Zoning meeting at 9 a.m. and again at the April 24 city council meeting, both to be held at city hall.