Golfers practice their swing at Missing Links Driving Range, which was rezoned April 1 to allow for a RaceTrac to be built. Residents protested that the facility, which includes a miniature golf course, a golf school, a pro golfing shop, batting cages and an ice cream store, is unique and should not be replaced with a gas station.
LARGO – The fate of the Missing Links Driving Range is uncertain. As of April 1, the front 2.4 acres of the property has been relabeled a “commercial general” future land use, a change that representatives of RaceTrac requested in order to build a gas station and convenience store along East Bay Drive.
More than 1,500 customers and employees of the facility signed petitions against closing the facility. The miniature golf course, the golf school, pro golfing shop, batting cages and ice cream store made Missing Links too unique to replace with a gas station, protesters argued.
“This place means more to the city of Largo than any gas station could mean,” said Bob Blair, an employee who helped lead the charge against closing it. “Missing Links has become a staple of the community.”
Largo commissioners voted 5-1 to approve the last step in changing the future land use April 1. All but Commissioner Woody Brown agreed that the new land use would mean the property would match the other three corners, which are all designated commercial general.
Even with the change, Missing Links could stay the way it is, staff confirmed.
“Either way, the owner is going to do whatever he chooses,” Commissioner Harriet Crozier said.
William Hancock owns the property itself and is a co-owner of the Missing Links business with Jim Smith. Smith said he feels caught in the middle, between loyal customers and his business partner.
RaceTrac first approached Hancock about leasing the land. Smith said he can appreciate that the driving range is not the most profitable use for the property.
“He’s decided to make a business decision. I don’t begrudge him one bit for doing that,” Smith said. “I’d like to see it stay a golf facility.”
Smith, 64, said he’s been golfing his whole life. He was a two-time winner of the Florida State Senior Open and, before that, played in the 1978 U.S. Amateur and the 1986 U.S. Open.
He opened the golfing business in 1987 with Hancock, whose family owned the land, Smith said. The timing was right. They modeled the “family fun center” after Storm’s Driving Range in Clearwater, which similarly offered many more attractions than the golfing range.
“We knew it would work. We studied their operation,” Smith said. “Now there’s a Home Depot where that (driving range) used to be on Gulf-to-Bay.”
The business was self-sustaining, even after the bad economy hurt the golf industry. Missing Links offers a cheaper way to practice one’s swing than a round of golf, Smith explained.
The deal with RaceTrac has been in the works for at least six months. Even before the city voted, Smith said he couldn’t be optimistic about the future of Missing Links.
“It was a good run. Twenty-seven years,” he said.
Smith, one of the professionals who offered private lessons at Missing Links, said he had been close to retirement anyway. Still, the potential closure of Missing Links has been “real emotional.”
“It’s been the love of my life,” he said, his eyes watering.
Others were less conflicted on the issue. Andre Fecteau, a customer who led the petition drive, said he represented the will of the people and could have obtained “thousands more signatures.”
“Why do people come to Largo? Recreation,” he said. “This is the most universally hated and despised thing to come before the council ever, to change that driving range to a gas station.”
He urged the commissioners to purchase the land from Hancock and keep the facility as is.
Michael Riso, another golf instructor, emphasized the environmental value of the land in its current land use designation as “recreation/open space.”
“We could use more green and less black,” Riso said.
Brown, running the meeting in Mayor Pat Gerard’s absence, was the sole vote against change. He said he was concerned that piecemeal changes to the future land use map at the request of businesses undermined its purpose.
“If we do that every time, what’s the point of the plan?” he asked.
Blair said Missing Links was a reason for customers to drive to Largo, rather than just pass through it, stopping only to “get gas and a quick Coke.”
“It is a family recreation center, and if you take it away, what are they going to do? There are no other facilities like Missing Links, an all-in-one place, anywhere in this county,” Blair said.
Little League players used the batting cages during the summer. Those who came to play miniature golf and enjoy ice cream when they were younger now bring their own children.
“We’ve had a lot of generations come and go,” Smith said.
The land use change doesn’t affect the remaining 5.7 acres of the property at 1201 East Bay Drive, farther away from the main road. Smith said he didn’t know what Hancock had planned, if anything. The land is crisscrossed with utility easements, particularly power lines, limiting its use.
Hancock declined to comment on the future of the property after the commission vote.