Demand for golf communities fading
Cost and land availability are two big factors in the waning trend of
building developments around greens and fairways.

Courtesy St.Petersburg Times
Published January 5, 2004

Golf courses have been a standard part of large subdivisions for as long as such projects have been built in Hernando County.

Ridge Manor had a course. The original Spring Hill had two. More recent examples include Timber Pines, Silverthorn and Hernando Oaks.

And, for just as many years, the standard arguments for building courses were accepted without much question: Golf courses attract buyers; they allow developers to charge higher prices for houses, especially ones built on fairways; finally, by bringing in outside players, the courses provide a separate source of revenue.

But that thinking is changing, as is the willingness to build golfing communities in Hernando County.

"There's not been a demand for them (among developers). Certainly not in the last year," said Jerry Greif, the county's chief planner.

The golf course community in Hernando is far from extinct, said Don Lacey of Coastal Engineering Associates Inc., "but I can tell you people aren't building them willy-nilly anymore."

In the past year, three of the largest developments approved by the county - including Trillium and Avalon near the Suncoast Parkway - did not include courses. And one project, Killarney, was approved with a course that it later scratched from its plans.

The reasons, at least the primary ones, are simple.

Courses are expensive, costing anywhere from $5- to $10-million and, in some cases, more than $500,000 annually to maintain.

They cover large areas - typically more than 300 acres - that might otherwise accommodate residential lots. And, mostly because the state and county are loaded with golf courses, they are not nearly as profitable as they once were.

"You used to be able to count on more outside play. Now, the only time they make money is during the winter," Lacey said; he added that all public courses in the county, including the high-market World Woods, drastically reduce green fees in the summer.

"I think nationally, and definitely in Florida, there are an abundance of courses," said Jim Bowen, the former Tampa Bay division president of Pulte Homes; the giant homebuilder has proposed an 807-home subdivision, Trillium, that does not include a course.

"The golf course market has gone through the basement."

That is especially true in Hernando.

The National Golf Foundation estimates 40,000 residents are required to support each 18-hole course. Hernando County, with a population of slightly more than 130,000, has 17 full-length courses, along with two public 9-hole courses. 

The consequences of this crowded market have been obvious in recent years.

Rivard Golf and Country Club was forced into foreclosure in 2001. Last year, the Brooksville City Council discussed temporarily shutting down the city-owned Quarry Golf Course because it has lost money.

Brooksville Golf and Country Club had accumulated about $1-million in debt last year, when Tommy Bronson made it part of his nearby Majestic Oaks subdivision.

The country club's strategy to insulate itself from the tough and fluctuating market is basically the same as that of the county's most notable new golf course community - Southern Hills Plantation, which is planned for south of downtown Brooksville.

This approach boils down to building an elite course and depending on residents, not outsiders, to pay for it.

Sean Edwards, Brooksville Golf and Country Club's general manager, said the course suffered partly because the adjacent community, Dogwood Estates, had too few residents to support it.

Majestic Oaks will add nearly 700 units, which, he estimates, should bring nearly 200 new members. Along with the current members, that should be enough to support the course and allow it to be operated as a private course, Edwards said.

To entice people to pay the membership dues, he said, the course must be excellent; this is especially true because of the high quality of surrounding courses.

Beyond as recently completed renovation, which cost more than $1-million, Edwards said, the architect who designed Black Diamond in Citrus County has been hired to add two new holes that will feature an abandoned rock mine on the country club property.

Roger Postlethwaite, chief operating officer of the LandMar Group LLC - the developer of Southern Hills - said the course there will also be private.

"I think where the problem has been in terms of new courses are the public or semiprivate courses," he said.

The course will be designed by a famous architect, Pete Dye, Postlethwaite said. The hilly terrain will allow him to build sloping fairways that are unusual in Florida. And finally, the development will cover more space and have more homes than most other new projects in the county, meaning more potential members.

LandMar plans to build 999 homes in Southern Hills. It has enough additional property to allow it, or another developer, to build 1,600 more houses that would feed into the course.

One-thousand houses is the minimum number needed to support a golf course, Postlethwaite said, "and 1,500 is probably ideal."

That is one reason Hernando County will probably see few golf course communities in the future. Tracts of land large enough to hold both a course and the number of houses needed to support them are becoming rare.

Also, Bowen said, the demographics of the county's new development affect its ability to support a course. With the completion of the Suncoast Parkway, several new developments, including Trillium, are seeking to attract young working families.

These residents are less likely to be members of a country club than the retirees - "active adults" in the language of developers - that Hernando subdivisions have traditionally targeted.

Because a higher percentage of retirees play golf and want to join a club, a smaller number can support a course, Bowen said.

And because seniors will still look to move to Hernando, developers will continue to want to build courses in Hernando, said Nick Nicholson, a Brooksville engineer and the chairman of the county Planning and Zoning Commission.

They may not build as many as they have in the past, but they will build them, he said.

"I personally feel (a development) has to have a drawing card," Nicholson said.