DUNEDIN — City commissioners are in favor of transforming Stirling Links Golf Course into a city park, but will wait to make a final decision until hearing from the public first.
Commissioners unanimously endorsed a plan to transform Dunedin’s 18-hole, par-3 golf course into a 25-acre park at Palm Boulevard and Alt. 19, complete with walking paths, a connection to the Pinellas Trail, driving range and putting green.
During a Jan. 14 work session, Parks and Recreation Director Vince Gizzi said the city acquired the golf course in 2003 for $1.15 million with financial assistance from the county, and it has been losing money ever since. The city operated it until 2010, when it contracted with Billy Casper Golf to operate the facility in an agreement that expires March 31.
In an email to the city, Tony Cianci, senior vice president of operations at Billy Casper Golf, said, “Bottom line for us is that as much as we’ve enjoyed the relationship with the city and would like to stay, we cannot do so without changes in the rent structure of the agreement and capital investment by the city into their asset.”
During an earlier work session, the commission had the options to enter into negotiations with Billy Casper on a new contract, direct staff to operate the golf course, or allow the recreation department to transform the greenspace into a park.
In order to keep it as a golf course, Gizzi said it would cost $550,000 to $650,000 to upgrade greens and fairways, reseed the course, address irrigation issues and provide drainage improvements.
He told commissioners the city lost money each year it ran Stirling Links from 2003 to 2010, with the best year seeing a loss of $17,000 and the worse year coming up $135,000 short. Billy Casper lost about $15,000 each year.
Gizzi recommended the city convert the facility into a park, with recreation staff assuming maintenance and management. He suggested using existing staff that until recently has been maintaining the Vanech Recreation Complex, which is now overseen by the Blue Jays baseball organization, as part of its agreement with the city.
Operated as a city park, approximately $20,000 per year would be required for basic maintenance expenses at Stirling. Keeping the driving range is also a viable option, Gizzi said.
“The park could open very quickly with green space and walking paths. We can keep the driving range open with lessons. We feel the driving range has the potential for making a profit,” he said, noting that it would cost about $129,000 to transform the facility into a park, mainly to improve the driving range and putting green.
In the future, the driving range can be illuminated at night to extend hours and increase the potential for making additional profit; in addition, awnings and additional netting could be added.
“We really have a beautiful property off Palm Boulevard, with beautiful trees, and right now we are looking at adding walking paths and keeping it passive,” Gizzi said. “We can make stormwater improvements to ponds on the property and have a stormwater feature.”
He added that the driving range may have to be closed a few weeks after the city assumes maintenance control of the course April 1 to remove Brazilian peppers, replace mats and clean it up.
Commissioner Maureen Freaney noted some people have suggested keeping nine of the 18 holes for a golf training facility, and asked Gizzi if that idea had any merit.
Gizzi said it would still cost about $550,000 to upgrade even a nine-hole course.
“History shows us it’s been on the decline, which is the trend of golfing, generally flat to declining,” he said. “I don’t believe that would be viable.”
City Manager Jennifer Bramley added, “It’s not viable as 18, so I don’t think it would be viable as nine.”
Freaney agreed with staff consensus, adding, “Yes, if anything it would shrink the market. And you would have the same cost of running it. If you look at the numbers, the golf course was never really a revenue generator.”
Gizzi said the green space could mean more to the community than cash.
“From a parks and recreation standpoint, you have such a beautiful piece of property, people who live in that neighborhood love to see those trees and nice green grass,” Gizzi said. “It will be a showpiece if we enhance the ponds, add some bridges over the ponds, and fitness equipment around the walking trails.”
He said a connection to the Pinellas Trail “could be a magnificent addition to the trail; (near) the creek there are a lot of possibilities for that location.”
Jorge Quintas, director of public works and utilities and city engineer, told commissioners the city could clean out, upgrade and expand the pond system on the property to provide water quality improvements along with connecting to Curlew Creek.
“We could leverage stormwater dollars to make park improvements,” Quintas said. “Vince will be very happy if he gets a park built off stormwater improvement dollars.”
Officials said they wanted public input into the process.
“When we give the high sign for a park in Dunedin, there will be terrific excitement and expectations, and I wanted to make sure the public knows how they can be a part of it,” Commissioner Heather Gracy said.
Gizzi said the parks and recreation department will conduct an online survey and have a public meeting to gather input on what residents would like to see in the park.
Said Gracy, “It’s a great piece of land that I think needs to be used in different ways as we venture into 2020. It will be heartwarming to watch the public come together and tell us what they need.”
Commissioner Jeff Gow added that the Dunedin Golf Course is looking for ways that it can accommodate par 3 players.
“It’s a good opportunity for Dunedin,” he said.
Commissioners unanimously approved staff’s recommendation until the public gets a chance to weigh in on the city’s plans and a permanent decision can be made. Public meetings will be announced at a later date.