Southwest Florida's oldest golf course will receive a $5.2 million face lift just before its 100th birthday.
Fort Myers Country Club, designed in 1917 by Donald Ross, is one of the oldest courses in Florida. It's unique because it's a public course and still has its old-time charm and old-time prices as players now can walk 18 holes for $12.50 and use a cart for $30.
The City Council last month agreed to improvements to the historic course.
"I think it's great," said pro golfer George McNeill, who has spoken with Rich Lamb, Fort Myers Country Club director of golf, quite a bit about the project. "The fairways have the same grass as when (Thomas) Edison walked the course, so needless to say, it's pretty old."
The course will be closed from April to October next year while the work is being done. That will cost the city about $300,000 in lost revenue, Lamb said.
"We budgeted for a revenue shortfall," he said.
The City Council approved $2.6 million in golf-course improvements, $2.2 million in drainage and $450,000 in construction management, said Saeed Kazemi, public works director for Fort Myers.
"It's a fantastic treasure," said Forrest Banks, a city councilman who has played the course for 43 years. "We're trying to retain its character."
After last year's Coors Light Open in late February, fans told Banks that the course is starting to show its age. "We've worn it out, I believe," he said.
Lots of upgrades
The tees, fairways, bunkers, greens and areas around the green will be improved while the addition of two detention basins on the course will control storm water, limit flooding and standing water on the back nine, and limit the amount of debris and silt that goes into the canals as well as the Caloosahatchee River.
"We want to improve water quality as well as make drainage improvements," Kazemi said.
Lamb said there will be modest changes made to some holes. He said the course won't be lengthened.
"We want to take a neat course and make it nicer," he said.
Lamb proposed the renovations when he found out that part of the cost could be picked up.
The project will receive $1.3 million in tax-increment funding from the city's community redevelopment agency. Tax-increment funds accumulate when an area gets redeveloped. Property values increase when the neighborhood is improved. The extra money above and beyond the original taxes goes to the funding.
The city will borrow the rest, about $3.9 million and use green fees to pay the loan back. Starting in 2015, the loan will be paid over 20 years, Lamb said, at a cost of $294,000 per year. With interest, that will come to about $5.9 million.
The city's other course, Eastwood, brings in about $110,000. Fort Myers Country Club lost $40,000 in the past year. Increased rates - $2-$4 per round first in November and again in January, are expected to generate approximately $340,000 per year, said Maria Joyner, the city's director of finance.
Lamb said a course architect and construction company have to be hired before renovation begins in April. Kazemi said he needs to have the design and contract ready before April 15, with the project to be completed by Oct. 15. He said any delays after April 15 likely would push the project back by a year.
"I think everyone wanted to see this project happen," Lamb said. "There was 9/11, then we went through a real tough time with the recession and economy, starting in 2007. To ask the city for $4-5 million then was not realistic.
"When we heard of the CRA, we thought maybe we could piggyback with the other projects. Now that everyone is really focused on a better method to deal with the storm water and millions of gallons of water that goes into the canals, what a wonderful way to do two things at the same time."
While Lamb said this is the first renovation that addressed the entire course, this will the second renovation overall. In 1991, $1.4 million of work was done to upgrade the greens and irrigation system.
McNeill said these improvements will help Fort Myers Country Club hold up better on a day-to-day basis. A total of 63,000 rounds of golf are played on the course year-round, including 8,500 rounds during the busiest month, March.
Other top local players also were happy to hear the news.
"Anything to make it nice again," said Marion Heck, five-time winner of the event now called the Coors Open. "I'm happy for Rich and I'm happy for the city. They're doing the right thing."
Don Moser and Frank DiPlacido, long-time golfers at Fort Myers Country Club, said they're looking forward to better greens, fairways and roughs as well as better drainage.
"Long overdue," Moser said.
"There's a lot of weeks when this course is unplayable with all the rain we get here," DiPlacido said. "The design still stands the test of time."
Pro player Derek Lamely, currently sidelined by a thumb injury, said he had heard a few complaints from players about the greens and around greens at the Coors Light Open.
"Sweet, I'm all for it," he said. "They needed to face this. They can leave certain things while giving it a face lift.
"It really has great potential to be one of the great courses down here. Technology has changed but this course hasn't."