DUNEDIN — By next April, Stirling Links Golf Course could be transformed into Dunedin’s newest 27-acre city park, complete with a driving range.
That scenario become evident during a Dec. 3 City Commission work session in which Commissioner Jeff Gow noted the par-3 golfing facility at 620 Palm Blvd. has been losing money for years and “had run its course.”
Parks and Recreation Director Vince Gizzi noted that in 2003 Dunedin purchased the then-43-year-old St. Andrew’s Links Golf Course with assistance from the county. The agreement included a restrictive covenant to preserve the site as open space for public recreational use in perpetuity.
“Use of the property can be changed from a golf course to other municipal uses at the exclusive legislative direction of the city, provided any new use of the property complies with the restrictive covenants” to preserve its greenspace, Gizzi said.
The City of Dunedin operated the golf course until 2010. In March of that year the city commission approved a license agreement with Billy Casper Golf to maintain and operate Stirling Links. The term of the agreement was for 10 years ending on March 31, 2020.
Gizzi told commissioners on April 23 the parks and recreation department received an email from Tony Cianci, senior vice president of BCG Operations, stating: “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.”
Gizzi noted the city decided to consider two options — operating the facility as a golf course or converting the site into a public park.
The city could take over Stirling Links and operate it as a par-3 golf course directly through the Parks and Recreation Department, as it was done previously. However, Gizzi reminded commissioners, prior to contracting with BCG, the city was losing approximately $70,000 a year on operations.
Meanwhile, Dunedin Golf Club, which operates its own nearby 92-year-old, par-72 18-hole course, “has currently expressed they are not interested” in operating Stirling Links because it would be a financial burden, he told commissioners.
The option recommended by Parks and Recreation is to convert the property into a city park. In this case, the city would assume the maintenance and management responsibilities with existing staff.
“From day one, and with minimal preparation, the site could be available as green space with walking trails utilizing the existing cart paths,” Gizzi said. About $20,000 per year would be required for basic maintenance expenses, and maintenance expenses for April 1 through September 30, 2020 for $10,000 are included the FY 2020 budget, Gizzi said.
“There are a variety of possible passive and active uses of the property. There is also the option to keep open the driving range,” the parks and recreation director said. “Staff estimates approximately $120,000 to $160,000 in annual expenses and $30,000 in startup costs for this option that could include the driving range, concessions, golf lessons and camps. There is a potential for profit.”
Commissioners were told there is also a possibility that the Dunedin Golf Club may agree to operate the driving range for a fee.
Funding for basic park operations and driving range expenses, as well as capital funding for a dog park, are already included in the 2020 budget.
Parks and Recreation staff met with the Dunedin Golf Club board of directors and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee to discuss the various options. Both recommend the facility be converted to a public park.
“The need for two public golf courses in Dunedin is questionable due to our population and the current state of the golf industry,” Gizzi said.
He told commissioners Parks and Recreation has lined up staff and would be ready to run the driving range when the city would move in on April 1. As far as park operation, the department would provide mowing and landscaping.
Those who spoke during the public comment portion of the work session noted the park has become overgrown and areas flood easily because drainage ponds have not been cleaned out.
“Today is just a first step in what I think is a long process,” said Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski. “We are hoping to give some consensus direction, but I also want to make sure that if the commission says, ‘Let’s get out of the par-3 part of it and go toward more of a park,’ that the park and its amenities will be decided at a much different time than this.”
Whatever the amenities might be, whether it be pickleball or a dog park, the commission will consider public discussion and an analysis of the city’s needs, she said.
Commissioner Heather Gracy said the city should take time to examine different uses for the area, including considering a resident’s suggestion to incorporate the park into the nearby Pinellas Trail as a respite area.
“That in itself is a park,” she said, referring to the trail. “So if we look at this, it’s one park highlighting another. It would be a great respite from the trail, much like Weaver Park,” she added. “I’m overwhelming in support to use the land in a different way.”
Commissioner Deborah Kynes said she definitely wants to preserve Stirling Links as open space and believes any attempt to add a dog park “will have a lot of conversation.”
“I’m happy to start the process, because it really does have to look so much better; we can do so much better,” Kynes added.
Commissioner Maureen Freaney also liked the idea of playing off the trail concept and creating “a respite feeling.”
As assistant city manager in 2003, Freaney supported the purchase of Stirling Links even after criticism arose that it was a money-losing proposition.
“I think it was a great thing to do to preserve it as greenspace,” she explained. “It’s been given a lot of chances to succeed as a golf course. It wasn’t working when we bought it. We gave it time; we took it over and we were losing money. We went to an outside contractor, so I think it’s been given a lot of chances. I think moving forward with some different thinking is good.”
Commissioner Jeff Gow questioned whether a par-3 golf course would be profitable even after being refurbished. “We’ve given it its due and it’s time to think about other uses. The idea of going in and knowing it will remain greenspace is just as exciting as keeping it a par-3,” he said.
Bujalski said it would take more than a million dollars to bring the course back to where it should be, and there would be no return on investment, considering the amount of rounds of play it would have to attract.
Parks and Recreation will report back to the commission on future park amenities and potential for incorporating a driving range.