Saturday, July 07, 2007

Clubhouse demolition highlights past, future of Cape Coral


What was once the center for social gatherings and recreation in Cape Coral will become nothing but a pile of rubble in a few short weeks. Demolition of the clubhouse at The Golf Club began Thursday after crews finished gutting most of the interior. A backhoe took the first chunk out of the exterior at 10 a.m.

It should be only another three weeks before there is nothing left of a building that pre-dates the incorporation of the city, according to project superintendent Marc Arnett. Workers have been at the closed course for weeks, ripping out asbestos from the clubhouse and tearing down other structures.

Crews began ripping the cart barn and other small buildings apart last Monday. But the structure of the clubhouse remained intact, standing as one of the final remaining symbols of the Cape’s past.

City historian Paul Sanborn was the first general manager of the course and hosted the clubhouse opening. “Now when I see them tearing it down, I remember when we were building it,” he said.

He recalls fondly the time when the course and its clubhouse were “the most luxurious between Tampa and Miami — the jewels of Cape Coral.”

Gulf American Land Corporation, owned by the famous Rosen family, originally developed the property and opened both a golf course and a hotel on the land in 1961. Very few people lived in the Cape at that point, so the corporation build the course to attract new residents. In the mid 1960s one of the Rosens told Sanborn, “people think this is a country club, but it isn’t. It’s a sales tool.”

Construction of the clubhouse began in 1966, and it opened to the public on New Year’s Eve 1967. The club threw a party for its opening, which was just the start of annual tradition. Sanborn said that some rooms in the clubhouse were not even finished, but that he decided that they could not pass up an event like that.

Five years after the clubhouse was erected, golf legends Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite battled for the NCAA national championship on the links at The Golf Club. They would end up sharing the individual title after Crenshaw sunk a world-class distance putt on the final hole. His Texas Longhorns won the team competition that year.

New management would file in and out over the years, each with different philosophies. Wall tile was painted over and color schemes were changed to reflect a more “Florida” feel. The interior of the clubhouse was altered more than the course itself, which underwent several renovations. Eventually, the entire second floor would be closed, bringing an end to the various banquets, weddings and receptions that were once held in the halls. The pro shop, restaurant and bar on the first floor remained open until course operations shut down.

What was once a brilliantly manicured course is now gone. Residents have described the vacant property as a “wasteland.” What used to be a spectacular backyard view is now an eyesore, neighbors say.

Developers have repeatedly stated their case for redevelopment of the land, but future plans are very much up in the air.

Battles over the property have been waged for the last two years, beginning with Lee County’s attempt to buy the course and develop it into a multi-school campus in 2005. After that plan was withdrawn, a new fight began when former course manager Scott Siler announced in June 2006 that the course would be permanently closed as of the start of August that year. It took 11 more months for contractors to roll in to demolish the long- abandoned buildings that stood on the once proud course.

While he understands the reasoning, Sanborn still decries the decision to demolish the clubhouse.

“I think its a loss for the city,” he said.

Still, the possibility of a new course with a resort complex of some kind built on the property does excite him.

Such a plan has been proposed by Save Our Recreation, a non-profit organization dedicated to retaining a golf course on the land.

“It’s sad to see it go,” Mary Neilson, the group’s president said about the clubhouse, “but it was deteriorated to the point where they had to do something.”

Partners for Florida Gulf Ventures LLC, the company which owns the Golf Club, have vehemently opposed such a proposal saying that it is simply not economically viable.

Sanborn remains skeptical.

“I find it difficult to believe in a city of 160,000 that they could not support (a golf course),” he said.

But because of the amount of money the owners lost during the last few years of operation, he understands why the course was closed and why current plans from Florida Gulf Ventures do not include one.

He was cautious to be very critical of the company’s plans for the space.

“It’s very easy to spend other people’s money,” Sanborn said.

Neilson said that the clubhouse was a landmark but it had fallen into disrepair so it had to be demolished since repair was simply not an option. The demolition may be a good first step to revamping the property and putting it to good use once again.

“I look forward to a resort and an 18-hole golf course. We’re working on it,” she said.