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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
July 2020

Miami Shores Country Club faces a tough shot from the rough

FClub_1or 30 years, Professional Course Management has leased a 130-acre swath of land from the Village of Miami Shores. Known as the Miami Shores Country Club, the property includes an 18-hole golf course, seven tennis courts, and a clubhouse with a restaurant, a horseshoe-shaped lounge, and a banquet hall. Under PCM’s management, the Village of Miami Shores usually received money every year, thanks to a complicated contract that not only includes profit sharing but also places the burden of capital improvements and maintenance on the company.

That era is coming to an end.

On May 12, PCM’s president, Johnny LaPonzia, notified Miami Shores that PCM won’t renew its contract, allowing its lease to expire on September 30.

No reason was given in LaPonzia’s letter as to why it no longer wants to be the operator of the Miami Shores-owned property. However, in recent public meetings, the COVID-19 pandemic was named as the primary cause. Thanks to the highly contagious disease, weddings, birthdays, and other special events have been canceled, golf games were stopped for just over a month, onsite dining is curtailed and limited to mask-wearing guests (though takeout is offered), and the bar remains shuttered, with caution tape woven through the bar stools.

Club_2However, PCM’s time at the Miami Shores Country Club might not be over just yet. A consultant has advised against village officials looking for new club managers while the coronavirus is still a major health issue in South Florida and the rest of the nation. Instead, the village’s consultant has urged the village to work out a short-term deal with PCM.

“We cannot imagine a worse possible time to go out for a lease bid due to the current circumstances, most notably the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has at least temporarily shuttered businesses, instilled fear and uneasiness in consumers, and resulted in record high levels of unemployment,” stated Ed Getherall, director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation, in a June 2 letter to village manager Tom Benton.

A PCM employee confirms that LaPonzia is now negotiating with the village, which is why he won’t comment to the BT. “He is in negotiations at this point and has no comment,” says the employee, who requested anonymity.

A report on those negotiations will likely be presented to the village council this month. Should negotiations with PCM stall, village officials are preparing to create a request-for-proposals process for a new facility manager as well, in spite of the consultant’s warning.

“We’re 100 percent focused on keeping it a country club and a golf course, whether that’s setting up bids or trying to keep the [current management] company. Whatever is best for the residents,” Councilman Jonathan Meltz tells the BT.

Club_3What the village won’t do, at least for now, is turn part or all of the country club into something else, like a park or a residential development. The idea was considered during the May 19 Miami Shores council meeting, when Mayor Crystal Wagar suggested that the village explore the “highest and best use” for the country club while looking for other companies to manage it.

“I’m a member of the country club and I enjoy using it,” Wagar told the council. But, she added, the village should strive to get the big picture by holding workshops and hiring a consultant.

“I would like to know what the other options could be -- if there are residents using the golf course, if there could be a development opportunity there, is there an opportunity to have a sorely needed community center. I’m not married to one thing or another,” Wager said at the meeting, later adding: “I’m curious if there can be some sort of mixed-use, incorporating government offices and parks. There’s a myriad of things to look at if we do it.”

During that same May 19 meeting, the village manager stated that Miami Shores made $231,638 in rent and revenue sharing from the country club last fiscal year. But that figure pales in comparison to what could be made in tax revenue alone if “some sort of development” took place on at least part of the country club grounds, Benton added.

Councilman Stephen Loffredo advised against bringing more development to Miami Shores. “If we develop half of the country club to mid-rise...you will add 4000 or 5000 more people,” he told his colleagues. (Miami Shores has a population of 10,600, according to recent census estimates.) That extra population will increase traffic, Llofredo continued, and it’ll be necessary to put in a new sewer system.

Club_4

“I think that green space is at a premium,” Llofredo explains to the BT. “As more and more places [in South Florida] go to high-rises, the last thing we need, especially with coronavirus, is more dense population and more traffic.”

Vice Mayor Alice Burch went a step further. She introduced a resolution at the subsequent council meeting, held on June 2, to delay hiring a land-use consultant until the village exhausted any chance of negotiating a new deal with PCM or finding another company. That resolution inspired about 300 people to send messages to village hall. Around a dozen of the messages favored exploring other options for the country club, including development or turning it into a park, but more than 290 residents insisted that the country club and golf course should remain unchanged.

“It’s the largest feedback for a public meeting we ever received,” Burch says.

During the June 2 meeting, council members agreed by acclamation that the village should focus entirely on the club’s management. Meltz, though, insists that the Shores never seriously considered redeveloping the country club or turning it into a park that would cost the village millions of dollars to maintain.

“Somehow, some way, through social media or a lack of communication, a large number of residents thought the council would be considering closing the club,” Meltz says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Wagar insisted she preferred that the property remain a club as well. “We did not go seeking this,” Wagar said at the June 2 meeting. “This landed in our lap at the most inopportune time.”

The Miami Shores Country Club is nearly as old as the village itself. The 3.7-square-mile village incorporated as Miami Shores in January 1932. Five years later, workers employed by the Public Works Administrations cleared a forest and developed a country club with a golf course designed by renowned course designers Robert Lawrence and Louis Wilson. Completed in the fall of 1939, the golf course was purchased by the village in 1945. In 1956 the village restricted access to members, village residents, and their guests. Blacks and Jews were barred during much of the 1950s. Even in the early1980s, there were no African-American members and few Jewish members, recalls Seth Bramson, a local historian who managed the club during the late 1980s.

For decades, the club was managed directly by the village itself, a prospect that today’s village council members want to avoid due to popular lore that the municipality did a horrible job. Says Meltz: “I heard the stories. I heard how the country club turned into a disaster, and I heard many times over how a municipality, especially one of our size and strength, shouldn’t run a golf course.”

Bramson agrees that the country club was horribly run when he first moved to Miami Shores in 1981. “The food and service were beyond terrible,” he recalls.

In 1985, then village manager Leslie Forney recruited Bramson to oversee the club. Bramson, whose hospitality career included managing the Playboy Club that once stood at Biscayne Boulevard and 77th Street, retrained the staff and hired new chefs and managers. Bramson says he also encouraged locals of all backgrounds, including African Americans and Jews, to join. During the three years he managed the club, Bramson says, membership grew from 615 to 1518 people, and the club also became profitable for the first time.

Then Forney left the Shores for a new job. His replacement was Elly Johnson, a man Bramson denounces as “a racist, a bigot, and an anti-Semite.” Johnson interfered so much with the club’s operations, Bramson claims, that he quit in 1988. Membership also plummeted.

In 1989, the same year Johnson became manager of Edgewater in Volusia County, the village had to loan the club $700,000. In March 1990, the village opted to lease the club to PCM. By 2011, PCM had invested $3 million upgrading the golf course and clubhouse. (Workplace controversy followed Johnson in several later administrative positions in Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where he died in 2006 at the age of 67.)

In more recent years, golf courses around the nation have closed and been converted into parks or housing developments. But Vice Mayor Burch says Miami Shores Country Club, which now allows non-members to play golf for a fee, has actually seen an uptick in golfing activity. Burch notes that 40 people braved torrential downpours to play golf at the club over the Memorial Day weekend.

“I feel that we have a highly desirable facility in a market that is changing,” Burch tells the BT. By changing, Burch means that several golf courses in South Florida have closed while the Shores golf course has remained open. “Melreese may not be a golf course in the future,” she points out, referring to the 131-acre City of Miami-owned golf course now being considered as the site for a mega-development that would include a major league soccer stadium.

But Meltz says a large part of the club’s revenue comes from restaurant meals, bar tabs, and banquet hall rentals, which are now near zero, thanks to COVID-19. In response to the business disruption, the village agreed to pay 50 percent of the maintenance bill for April, which totaled $38,444. Meltz predicts that PCM, or future operators, will insist that the village share in the cost of maintenance and capital improvements. “Just generally, we are not going to have the sweetheart deal we used to have,” Meltz cautioned at the June 2 meeting. “It will cost us real money.”

In spite of that prospect, Meltz says he’s determined to get the best deal he can for the village. Besides profit sharing, rent, and discounts for Miami Shores residents, Meltz says he also wants a clause in the contract that will allow residents to bike through the golf course pathways at least once a month when it isn’t being used. Usually, residents who aren’t playing golf or are not members are forbidden from entering and wandering the golf course’s grounds even when it is closed, except during the July 4 holiday. But in March and April, when the county ordered golf courses shut down, residents were free to bike through the country club grounds.

“I would like to see some time weekly or monthly allowed for people to ride their bikes there, like they did during the heavier quarantine phase,” Meltz says.

 

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