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The Trouble With Golf PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper   
April 2011

It’s going broke, and leaving behind big, tempting green spaces

Cover1Floating above metropolitan Miami, you see a distinct pattern: row upon monotonous row of single-family homes and very few hints of open green space. (You don’t need an airplane to do this; you can use Google Earth.)

Looking from Miami’s downtown northward, the few “greenish” spaces you can spot are most likely golf courses, both active and abandoned, especially as your eye travels up the Biscayne Corridor toward Broward County. The only significant acreage of natural, public space sits along the Oleta River. With that one exception, no park in Biscayne Times territory is larger than a golf course.

Golfers can choose among many places to play their game, but tens of thousands of children here have nowhere to run and frolic freely. At less than 1000 acres of total parkland, the City of Miami notoriously has the least amount of public green space per capita of any major city in the United States, as ranked in 2010 by the Trust for Public Land. Its acreage would need to quadruple just to reach the recommended ratio.

By comparison, New York City has twice as much parkland per person, and Los Angeles three times. Miami-Dade County, while better at 12,848 acres, also falls short.

Cover2National and state parks protect huge areas, but they are not nearly as accessible for daily use. Oleta River State Park in the City of North Miami is Florida’s largest urban park at more than 1000 acres, but practically no one lives within walking distance. The entire City of Miami park system could fit inside this single location.

Today, right now, we have a unique opportunity to expand accessible park space.

With the real estate market in shambles and the golfing industry following suit, large chunks of open space are now up for grabs. Dozens of golf courses across South Florida are already shuttered, so this is the moment to ask ourselves: What is the best use of these open spaces? How can we repurpose them? And who should benefit?

Don’t get too excited yet. The development vultures are circling above the dying and dead golf courses, and where you may see a new public park, they see thousands of new homes.

First let’s see where Florida may be headed by Googling “Governor Scott” and “golf courses.” Holy Dave Barry! It may sound like an urban legend, but last month two bills were actually introduced in the state legislature to create country-club-style golf courses, complete with hotels and liquor licenses, within Florida’s state parks.

Cover3Oleta River State Park will now be known as Mangrove Isle Country Club. That’s a joke, but the crazy concept has approval from the top.

“It’s preposterous,” says Alberto Pozzi, general manager of the publicly owned Miami Shores Country Club. “I mean, the thought of converting good parkland into golf courses in this economy? It’s inexplicable how the idea would even have been considered. It’s beyond me. When you have a situation where very, very, very few golf courses are viable, the thought of building a trail of golf courses on public property is just inexplicable. It makes no sense.”

The controversial golf-in-every-park bills purportedly were hatched after a private meeting between Gov. Rick Scott and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus. Introduced in March by Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) and Rep. Patrick Rooney (R-West Palm Beach), bills SB 1846 and HB 1239 proposed to establish the “Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail,” with at least five Nicklaus-designed courses scattered in state parks across Florida. Oh, and they would be exempt from local regulations.

It was Caddyshack meets Wall Street.

Once the public got wind of these shenanigans, the outcry from all corners was so swift and forceful that the bills were pulled within a few days. But the question remains: What were they thinking? (Implied question: What were they drinking that they later hoped to drink at the 19th hole of the golf resort at their favorite state park?). The editor of Golf Weekly figured the story had come from the satirical news source The Onion, and he dubbed it “The dumbest idea of 2011.”

Cover4In reality, no one is laughing about the golfing industry. Hundreds of courses around the nation have closed in the past three years (including 375 public courses, according to the National Golf Foundation), and considering that Florida has more golf courses than any state (more than 1100), it also has the most to lose. In order to survive, courses must change. The entire industry must change.

“We’ve changed and adapted better than most. We’re confident that we’ll do well,” says Pozzi of Miami Shores, who reports seeing a 17-percent increase in rounds played this season over last year. He credits this success to better weather and to the country club’s transition from a private, members-only operation to a semi-private one that offers both memberships and visitor passes. The golf course has been open to the public since the early 1990s. In 2009 the public was welcome to use all the club’s facilities.

The Miami Shores Country Club may be owned by local residents, but it is managed by a private company, Professional Course Management, which is Pozzi’s employer. The management contract calls for annual rent of $25,000, plus another $75,000 should the country club generate more than $3 million in a year.

Cover5Miami Shores’s finance director, Holly Hugdalh, says the municipality took in the full $100,000 in 2009 but just $25,000 last year. Still, she asserts it’s a good deal for the Shores. “Most cities show a loss on their country clubs,” she says. “It’s a big hole in the water. Look at Miami Springs.” (In June the country club’s golf course is slated to close for three months to undergo some $750,000 in renovations.)

Alberto Pozzi, a tall, gray-haired gentleman originally from Uruguay, says our area mirrors the national trend of recent golf-course closures. In the north part of Miami-Dade County alone he counts four, but there are actually more countywide. In Broward County, the Sun-Sentinel reports that 11 courses have closed in the recent past.

Pozzi has his theories about the disintegration of the local golf scene. For one thing, the retirees and snowbirds who used to flock here -- golf’s primary audience -- are fleeing South Florida for other parts of the state, where the cost of living is lower. Local and national trends also reflect an excess of housing developments tied to golf courses. So an increase in courses has been met with a shrinking supply of golfers.

Cover6Other factors have contributed to the sport being less popular now than in previous decades, not least of which has been the soaring cost of a round of golf. During the peak winter/spring season, it costs $99 to play the Miami Shores course. That’s relatively cheap. A round at Doral’s Blue Monster during the high season currently costs $325. Even the publicly owned Miami Beach Golf Club charges $200 per round between December and April.

Pozzi also points to another, unique factor that, in addition to the recession, is causing the number of South Florida golfers to shrink: Miami as immigration magnet. Simply put, Miami’s vast immigrant community lacks the same cultural connection to golf as previous generations. On top of that, working parents nowadays have little leisure time.

Golfing in Miami-Dade may be a smaller slice of the tourism pie than in other counties, but it has a sizable impact nonetheless. A 2009 report from the University of Florida found 8400 acres of maintained turf on 48 golf courses in the county that generated of $288 million annually and provided 2364 jobs. The National Golf Course Owners Association reports that the industry in Florida was valued at $7.5 billion in 2007, equal to the revenues from all other major spectator sports in the state combined, including auto racing, horse racing, football, basketball, and baseball.

All of those numbers are surely falling.

Cover7Golfing peaked around 1990, according to a 2010 report by the National Golf Foundation, and its immediate future is dire. “Between 500 and 1000 public courses are expected to close with the next five years,” it states in the study “The Future of Public Golf in America.” (The designation “public course” means that membership is not required to play on the course, not that it is publicly owned.)

In Florida, rounds of golf played are down 5.8 percent from 2009 to 2010, and down 8.4 percent by comparing December 2009 to December 2010, according to GolfBusiness, the official publication of the National Golf Course Owners Association. According to the association, the year 2006 was a turning point for golf, when closures of courses nationwide for the first time outnumbered openings. Last year 107 courses closed while just 46 opened.

Still, there are some bright spots locally for the golfing industry. Johnson and Wales University runs an active golf-management program, and Barry University’s men’s golf team, coached by Jimmy Stobbs, a former touring pro golfer who grew up in Miami Shores. In Aventura the 300-acre Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort and Golf Club has two award-winning, 18-hole golf courses. Golf membership, limited to invitation-only, costs a whopping $65,000 nonrefundable or $150,000 refundable. This exclusivity may be working. “Where most clubs went wrong was by taking drastic measures, such as waiving initiation fees and dues for new club members,” says Amy Cohen, director of membership. “Instead we maintained our pricing strategy in addition to adding more affordable nonrefundable categories, making us an excellent value for the money.”

Cover8With the possible exception of Fairmont Turnberry, golf courses that are part of strictly private country clubs do not fare well in Miami. “There are four private clubs in Miami-Dade County, a county with a population of over two million people,” notes Alberto Pozzi. “Nationally you probably have three to four times the number of private clubs per capita.” Data on private clubs is limited, but the trend is clear for all types of golf courses, says Pozzi: “The industry has been in a state of crisis for some time now.” (In addition to Miami Shores and Fairmont Turnberry, the only courses still operating in northeastern Miami-Dade County are Greynolds Park in North Miami Beach and Westview Country Club near Miami-Dade College’s north campus.)

Regarding one decaying local golf course, the people of Bal Harbour and its wealthy surrounding communities spoke loud and clear about what they wanted to happen. Four years after a series of community meetings, they are finally getting rid of it. Last year the county allowed Haulover Beach Park’s small golf course to expire. It will be resurrected as the area’s largest unencumbered green space.

“There are no great lawns in our area,” says Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes Haulover and who laments the overall dearth of parks in our area. “The idea came from input from the community. It’s been a long time coming.”

Cover9She says the golf course’s bumps will be smoothed out and left open for concerts, pick-up games, and other community events. This past February 21, more than 4000 people swarmed over the golf course for Haulover’s annual kite festival, and Heyman sees such gatherings as the future: “Wouldn’t this be great to do more than once a year?”

A small golf course within a large county-operated park, Haulover offers an ideal laboratory for transforming a single-sport course into multi-use green space. It’s diminutive size means it’ll be easier to find solutions to the myriad problems such transformations can present. At other withering golf courses in our part of the county, however, the acreage is much greater and the stakes are much higher.

In the past decade, at least four of our area’s golf courses have died. Says Pozzi: “California Golf Club and Williams Island Country Club have been closed for at least six to seven years, and nothing is happening there. Presidential Country Club has been closed for nearly three years, and again, nothing is happening there.”

Clustered around I-95 and the edges of North Miami Beach, the abandoned properties are lying fallow, but things are in fact happening behind the scenes. The 148-acre Williams Island property, once affiliated with the Aventura residential development but located just west of I-95 at NE 195th Street, is slated to become 860 low-cost housing units. “They will develop it. There are very few inland sites like that,” says Alan Matus, CEO of Williams Island Associates, the original developer.

Cover10Matus says a Canadian company bought the mortgage from Ocean Bank within the past six months. That purchase capped a round-robin of transactions. After the golf course was rezoned to residential in 2004, Williams Island Associates sold the property to the residents of the Williams Island residential development in Aventura. Later the property was bought for $48 million by Transeastern Properties, which sold it and then regained it when the next buyer, Tousa, went bankrupt. Now it looks like it’ll be marketed to Canadian snowbirds.

The most publicized activity has been at the 183-acre former California Golf Club, located west of I-95 just off Ives Dairy Road. Thousands of residents around the property are being petitioned to change its zoning from golf course to residential. The property’s owner, businesswoman and philanthropist Liliane Stransky, dreams of creating Le Club Resort, a community of elegant homes with an equestrian centerpiece.

In a letter posted on the website of Le Club Resort, she writes: “Le Club Resort will be a vibrant community filled with lush community parks and shared spaces, lakes, areas for civic uses, a network of bicycle, pedestrian, and equestrian paths, a dog park, and more. The property will include large single-family home estates, townhomes, and multi-family units spread spaciously throughout the property…. At this time, I am seeking your consent, and the consent of all of my neighbors, to allow me to go before the county commission to enable the transformation of the abandoned golf course into a neighborhood asset.”

Stransky’s website shows elaborate plans for “a low-density residential (approximately six dwelling units per gross acre) development situated amongst Zen Gardens, Parks, the Equestrian Center and the Club House.” It also claims that 65 percent of the property will be preserved as open space, but the plans reveal most of that area consists of a rectangular lake.

Calls to the property manager of Presidential Estates were not returned. The golf course sits idle inside the private, walled community that abuts the east side of I-95 near the Broward County line.

Functional Westview Country Club, founded in 1948 and sitting on 180 acres at 2601 NW 119th St., is reportedly headed for limbo. One knowledgeable source, who asked not to be named, says the members of Westview recently voted to sell the entire club to an individual who has plans to create a private country club -- without golf. Matus of Williams Island Associates says that sagging membership is ruining Westview and other clubs. “There’s a lot of concern,” he says. “Golf courses are becoming very difficult to run due to annual membership renewal.”

When a golf course dies, the property can become overgrown with weeds, or it can be repurposed. Even going natural requires management because of the heavy alteration of the land. A prime example of what can happen to a large former golf course comes from Pembroke Pines in southern Broward County.

Although the city’s commission approved a housing development for the former Raintree Golf Resort in 2006, the plan collapsed along with the real estate market. The city bought the 112-acre property for $9.1 million in 2009 and plans to devote one-third of the property to wetland restoration and public parks. Currently in the permitting process, the property may also house public works buildings and commercial properties.

The city is seeking grants to fund the conversion of the golf course into a park. Do they think that other golf courses should be similarly converted? “I hope not, because it would mean another South Florida business has failed,” says Chuck Vones, Jr., assistant director of parks and recreation. “But if it does happen, and the city is fortunate enough to have forward-thinking elected officials like the ones in Pembroke Pines, who understand the value of open space and park property for the future of the community, it will be a very wise decision to purchase it.”

Other communities are doing the same. In Deerfield Beach, residents want to transform the Tam O’Shanter Golf Course into a cemetery. The Village of Royal Palm Beach six years ago bought the 160-acre Traditions Golf Course for $4.5 million and are now using grants to help create the Royal Palm Beach Commons Park. Near Tampa, the Lemon Bay Conservancy went door-to-door collecting funds to help purchase a former golf course for $750,000. Union County, New Jersey, did it. Richmond, Indiana. Onsted, Michigan. National City, California. And so on. In many cases, portions are zoned for development while other portions are reserved for parkland.

This is a new formula for a new era, and many believe the math works out well. Golf courses once were considered the golden ticket for housing developments, a belief that led to a boom in residential golfing communities up through the 1990s -- and to a glut of courses and housing units. But research now shows that parks can be more valuable than golf courses when it comes to enhancing property values. After all, people want to live near beautiful parks.

Despite the evidence of golf’s decline and despite the energetic creativity being shown by municipalities nationwide, here in Florida we get the “Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail.” Though the bills have been withdrawn, they can be put back in the hamper at any time. Should they end up as law, there would be consequences.

For example, a course would be required to be built Jonathan Dickinson State Park Martin County. The local Audubon chapter posted on its website a manifesto in opposition: “Designing and constructing new courses in areas of high environmental sensitivity such as Jonathan Dickinson State Park will result in undesirable impacts to the very natural resources that the Florida Park Service is working diligently to protect…. The clearing of natural habitat and the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides would impose unnecessary impacts on an area that is managed to sustain populations of native flora and fauna…. Golf courses in Florida are facing challenging times economically, and Audubon of Martin County sees no reason to impact ecologically valuable habitat for the purposes of what may not be a fiscally responsible initiative.”

The battle to preserve Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Florida’s other parks, none of which now has a golf course, becomes very confusing because it pits one “Audubon” against another. The organization Audubon International supports the golf course trail in state parks. It turns out that this “Audubon,” which operates separately from the conservation organizations using the same name, receives funding from the U.S. Golf Association.

“Their purpose is to work with golf course developers, and our purpose is to preserve habitat,” says Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. It did just that in Tennessee. Audubon International designated several courses of the Tennessee Golf Trail as a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.” The 11 courses of the Tennessee Golf Trail were built within state parks, and three of them were designed by Jack Nicklaus.

Other states have golf trails, and some also have courses inside state parks. But the coupling has not proven successful. The Tennessee Center for Policy Research reports that every course of the Tennessee Golf Trail loses money, and the system as a whole has lost $7 million since 2005.

So what will happen to golf in our area? Will Oleta River State Park trade in its mountain-biking trails for links? Will there be thousands of new homes built on the abandoned golf courses?

Don’t blink or turn a blind eye, because before you know it, what little green space we have left could be covered in concrete.

 

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