The future of the Zephyrhills Municipal Golf Course remains up in air, as city leaders continue to ponder the possible sale of the property for a Florida Army National Guard Armory.
In recent weeks, the National Guard has been scouting the 65-acre golf property situated on the southwest quadrant of the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.
This development comes as state lawmakers approved allocating $25 million in appropriations to the military organization, for future training grounds in Zephyrhills.
But area residents have come out swinging in support of the 18-hole, par 68 course, at 39248 B Ave., in Zephyrhills.
Avid golfers and course workers alike voiced the need to keep the outdoor recreational amenity intact, during a public comment portion of a May 24 Zephyrhills City Council regular meeting.
The facility — established in 1957, then opened in 1978 — is regarded as a low-cost alternative compared to surrounding golf courses, where snowbirds and others flock to during the year.
Discussion about the course’s future originally came up during an earlier May meeting to approve a lease agreement with Under Par Inc., to continue to serve as course management operators.
But City Manager Billy Poe at the time disclosed how the National Guard had targeted the golf course property for purchase — likely to be a substantial offer — among other site alternatives and parcels throughout the city, following the wave of expansion funding.
Armed with that information, council members tabled the lease renewal for future discussion, given that the city’s present agreement with Under Par won’t expire until April 2022.
With no final decisions yet set, locals came out in full force inside Zephyrhills City Hall to put comments on the record.
Sixteen-year-old Wesley Chapel resident Jake Roberts spoke in glowing terms about his experiences at the course.
The teen, who was the first public speaker to weigh in on the topic, said he learned to play golf there with his father, when he was just 8 years old.
He described the course as “a cornerstone” of his life and “a very important place” for the entire East Pasco community.
“I have a lot of good memories from there,” Roberts told the council. “I’ve grown up there basically, around some of the best, kindest, and overall good people that you could meet.”
He urged council members: “Please allow these memories I will forever cherish to be experienced by more people in this community.”
Roberts’ father, Art, also stood up, wrought with emotion on the course’s uncertain future.
Choking up, the parent shared how course staff and members welcomed his family and rallied around his 12-year-old daughter’s battle with cancer.
Art added that the course was “a place to go” for the family during the traumatic times, then emphasized how the facility is accommodating and affordable for both young and older golfers, including retirees and winter residents.
“The value to our community is immeasurable,” Art said. “There’s a lot of folks that need that place.”
Zephyrhills resident Ken Fabiani can attest, as an amputee veteran who’s played the municipal course the past four years. “It’s about the only golf course that’s feasible for somebody that has, not a handicap, but a little difficulty playing the longer golf courses,” he said, also noting the pro shop offers a 20% veteran discount.
Fabiani also suggested the proposed armory project “be placed somewhere more convenient than taking away the city’s golf course, and let it be that everybody has a chance to play.”
Mike Murrell discovered the course about two years ago when he relocated to Zephyrhills.
He has since become a regular course volunteer, where he’s met hundreds of people young and old — including some players in their 90s, who relish the smaller, beginner-friendly style course. “If it weren’t for that course,” Murrell said, “they wouldn’t be playing golf.”
Murrell also said, “I think it’d be a travesty if the course was shut down, because it’s enjoyed by so many people, especially the six months out of the year when the northerners are down here, it’s unbelievable.”
Longtime Zephyrhills resident Gary Kyle began playing the course about 11 years ago.
He likewise pleaded with city leadership to not compromise the course: “It’s a great place to go to unwind, it does a lot for the community. It gives people, young people especially, a place to go that’s safe, a good, safe environment, and I would really like for the council members and the city to keep the course open.”
In addition to other area residents who spoke up in favor of keeping the facility intact, course employees, like pro shop manager Craig Sexton, expressed concern about closing the course in favor of another development project.
“I don’t see why one company has to die for another to live,” Sexton said.
“I don’t understand why we need to destroy one company that’s functioning, not great, but we’re surviving, and for that to happen post-COVID, I’m confused, I’m not sure what is going on.
“I understand the city has to look out for the city, but I ask that you also consider us employees and just understand that we have something at stake, too.”
When questioned by council about course activity, Sexton said the facility can average upwards of 1,500 players per week and some 6,000 rounds per month, during the busy winter season between October through February.
“When we’re on and everybody’s in the groove,” he said, “it’s busy, it’s crazy out there, but they love it, and we make it happen.”
Sexton contrasted those figures with an undetermined number of National Guard soldiers and staffers who’d train and take base at the would-be armory unit.
He observed, “I mean, it’s really a substantial penalty to the community if we just wipe this golf course off the earth, you know.”
Zephyrhills golf course manager Ayako Burkhart also pleaded to keep the city golf course, describing it as an affordable recreational outlet for all ages and backgrounds.
Burkhart also detailed how the property is a haven for many seniors and winter residents, some who regularly stop by the clubhouse, not just for golf, but for coffee and conversations.
She also pointed out how the facility also is “a safe, comfortable environment” for golfers with disabilities, who may take a while longer to get around the course, by ensuring they aren’t harassed or yelled at for slow play. “People are appreciative of what we’re doing,” Burkhart said, “as a city golf course to everyone.”
Council addresses concerns
Following the barrage of public statements, council members further weighed in on the issue, while also thanking citizens for providing input.
Councilman Lance Smith, who grew up playing the course, acknowledged any final decision one way or the other will be tough given the course’s history and community role.
The councilman encouraged city staffers to visit the course to see its present condition and operations.
He also suggested the National Guard “look elsewhere” throughout Zephyrhills, instead of a golf course “that provides a recreational amenity to how many thousands of people every season.”
“Quite frankly, I’m going to have a very difficult decision to make, because that golf course is very dear to me, personally,” Smith said.
“When it comes down to it, I honestly can’t say which way I’m going to fall on it. …I know this (issue) is going to come before us, but I just want to put it out there that I have a strong attachment to that piece of ground out there.”
Mayor Gene Whitfield similarly advised staffers to best push other vacant sites to the National Guard for an armory.
“It’s been here a long time, it’s almost like a landmark here to many of us,” Whitfield said of the municipal course. “Personally, I’m kind of in the camp that says, ‘We need to keep looking and not make a hasty decision.’”
Councilman Ken Burgess said he’s confident administration “will do what’s in the best interest for the city overall,” then adding “we still have some things to find out before we even make a decision anyway.”
Added Councilman Charles Proctor: “Sometimes we do have to make tough decisions, but I think we can put a little common sense into it and maybe, hopefully, make everybody happy.”
City Attorney Matthew Maggard even chipped in his experiences participating in youth camps as a kid at the course.
It’s where he first learned to properly hit out of a sand trap thanks to an instructor’s memorable tip about envisioning swinging a shallow patch of sand about the size of a dollar bill under the ball. “I used that (tip) all the way through high school when I played on the high school team. That was the best trick I ever learned, and I learned it out there,” he said.
Altogether, Council President Alan Knight may have best summed up what most were thinking: “I have a big place in my heart for that golf course.”
Published June 02, 2021