By LAURA KINSLER
Published May 16, 2008
HERITAGE ISLES - A year after community leaders hired a management team from Saddlebrook Resort to guide Heritage Isles' golf and restaurant operations out of the red, a national golf consultant has said they likely made the wrong choice.
At the time, the community development district board was looking for its third management team in four years. The vote was split, with then-chairman Steve Stark and Supervisor Dan Barravecchio favoring a plan to lease the New Tampa country club's kitchen and dining room to a private restaurateur.
A year after Dempsey Resort Management Inc. reworked the menu and improved the food, Heritage Isles' restaurant is still hemorrhaging money — about $160,000 a year. On top of that, golf play in the Tampa market is down 27 percent this year. The CDD will not have the money to make its bond payment this fall and will go into default.
Richard Singer, a consultant for National Golf Foundation, said the board could make several changes to rebuild its business and reputation. For starters, the board should lease its restaurant operation to an outside vendor and convert the main dining room to a sports bar.
"This is no way intended to be a slight on DRMI and this entity should be able to make a bid on the lease," Singer wrote.
Bringing in a vendor with name recognition, like a Beef O'Brady's-type restaurant, would attract diners who might otherwise drive to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to find a restaurant, Singer said. It also would eliminate most of the overhead expenses involved in running the restaurant, and it would encourage golfers to stay at the club and buy food.
"Right now, when they finish their round, they go straight to their car and leave," Singer said. "They're not coming through your main facility, and they're not buying anything."
The board hired NGF to prepare the 92-page report with the hope that it will be able to negotiate with the district's bondholders and avoid losing control of the community altogether.
Singer said some characteristics that add to the neighborhood's value have detracted from the golf operation. "Everything about this facility screams private club," Singer told the board.
That starts at the gated entrance and name: Heritage Isles Golf & Country Club. He recommended removing the gates entirely and changing the name to Heritage Isles Golf Club. Neither suggestion went over well with the board.
Stark said both ideas would probably help the golf business, but it would lower the value of homeowners' investments.
"I see the reason why you said it," he continued. "We have to bring revenue into the club, but you can't take it out of the pockets of the homeowners."
But other changes could make the restaurant more inviting. Singer said the restaurant needs a more casual atmosphere with an emphasis on patio dining. "Make it clear that this is an open-to-the-public restaurant for golfers," he said. "They worry that they're going to get yelled at for wearing their golf shoes in the dining room."
He also recommended moving the pro shop to a seldom-used library space inside the clubhouse. The space is bigger, more inviting and directly across the lobby from the restaurant.
"There is impulse purchasing in golf," Singer said. "The more revenue centers you put in front of golfers, the more likely you are to make a sale."
Other recommendations dealt with the golf course itself. Singer said the course has more than twice the average number of sand bunkers, making it too difficult to appeal to most golfers. The course can take 5½ hours to complete; the industry standard is four hours.
"To play a round of golf at Heritage Isles is a slow crawl," he said. "When someone plays a 5½-hour round here, they get in their car; they're never coming back."
He recommended eliminating anywhere from a third to half of the sand bunkers over the next five years. The change would quicken the pace of play and could reduce the maintenance costs for the course.
Singer also suggested rerouting the course by flipping the front and back nine holes. If golfers were to start at what is now the 10th hole, they would reach the clubhouse at the midpoint of the round, as well as the end, and would be more likely to order food and drinks.
Singer will present the final report May 28. His draft report made it clear that the board shouldn't raise its expectations too much. Even if the district enacted all his recommendations, the club's revenues would grow just enough to "barely cover" all the operational and debt service expenses.
"The NGF Consulting team finds it unreasonable for the Heritage Isles Community Development District to expect any kind of significant dollar return from this golf facility," he wrote.