Saturday, July 09, 2011

Over time, one-time city gem has lost its luster

by, DREW WINCHESTER, The Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral's first golf course is still mired in litigation, sitting overgrown and unused as it reached its 50th birthday on Friday.

The lawsuit is currently In the discovery phase, according to Community Redevelopment Agency Attorney Bob Pritt, who said there likely will be little movement until next year, when the matter could be solved through mediation.

Should mediation fail, then the issue will head to a court room.

"It's a wild guess at best, but if there was a trial it would be sometime after the first of the year," Pritt said.

Florida Gulf Venture LLC, a part of the Minneapolis based Ryan Companies, brought the inverse condemnation case against the City of Cape Coral several years ago, according to Michael Ciccarone, the attorney representing Florida Gulf Venture, because the city denied them a "reasonable economic" use of the property by failing to grant the necessary land use regulation changes.

Ciccarone said Florida Gulf Venture's original intent was to install residential, office and commercial components on the site.

"The plans all along were to convert the property from a golf course to a mixed use development of fairly low intensity," he said.

The golf course was once a featured amenity for both Gulf American Corporation, and eventually the city, after incorporation. Its been unused for roughly four years, but it was once a very important cog in the Rosen Brother's vision for their burgeoning development.

Used in conjunction with the Yacht Club, the Golf Course was a sales tool wielded by the Rosen Brothers and their people to convince potential buyers that Cape Coral - or what would become Cape Coral - was a place where the Florida dream was not only real, but achievable.

It started as a nine-hole course in 1962, but eventually became an 18-hole championship course by 1967 that bloomed into a full-blown country club, boasting a 100- room hotel, club house, tennis facilities and a pool.

A former salesman for the Rosen Brothers, city historian Paul Sanborn, would eventually become the first manager of the country club, serving in that role nearly two years.

"It was a showplace of the area," Sanborn said. "It was the most outstanding club between Tampa and Miami and it had all the amenities one would expect. It was a place not only for the locals, but it also really helped to sell properties."

The country club quickly became the defacto hot-spot in the Cape, not only for golf but for the night life, too, where locals could be found wining and dining in the restaurant and the deck overlooking the course.

The course was also the first in Florida to host the NCAA golf championship in 1972, according to Sanborn. And future PGA stars Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite were among the rising stars to walk its greens.

"It was a championship golf course, always kept in magnificent condition," Sanborn added.

The course now grows wild, unkempt. Although it's bordered by homes and condominiums, and the outline of once pristine greens are noticeable, it looks more like the Florida backwoods than a championship course in the middle of a city of nearly 160,000, where police officers have had to run off homeless squatters looking for shelter amid its overgrowth.

It's a far cry from the days when former City Council woman and Realtor Gloria Tate spent countless hours with her family at the country club; back when four of them were club champions, when the country club hosted four of the Tate children's weddings, when their own children eventually decided to tie the knot in the country club's facilities.

Tate compared the club to what Tarpon Pointe has become today, a sort of catch-all facility that hosts a lot of public and private functions.

"It was an integral part of this city's history. We gathered there for all types of family functions," Tate said. "Everything was centered around there. Families celebrated weddings, they celebrated life ... you could celebrate everything."

Both Tate and Sanborn would like to see the old country club resurrected in some form.

Maybe not a full 18-hole course, but they would both like to see some of the old components come back, whether it be the club house and banquet facility, or the hotel, or the pool.

Maybe all of the above.

Cape Councilman Marty McClain, whose district encompasses the golf course, thinks that for the property to return to its once illustrious days it will likely have to combine a number of amenities other than golf.

McClain said the golf course could become part of a very special "synergy" in the CRA, that includes using the Yacht Club and the new Four Freedoms sunning beach to attract people to stay, and play, in Cape Coral's downtown.

With the golf course again viable, the Yacht Club running boats to the county's islands and kayak rentals at the newly christened Four Freedoms Beach, McClain thinks downtown would be a good place to be.

"People like those kinds of destinations," McClain said, adding, "People really need to start envisioning how to utilize what we have, how to offer things for the whole family ... once a single positive thing happens, other positive things tend to follow."

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz could not be reached for comment.