Belle McManus remembers the first time her husband Terry showed her what had become of Ocean Palms in 2015, the nine-hole club at the south end of Flagler Beach that by then had been disused and overrun by a jungle of weeds for almost a decade.
“It reminded me of Jurassic Park,” she said.
Belle had grown up in Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, so she had the rural and the rustic in her blood. This was neither. It was just wild and un-wonderful. Her husband was four-wheeling her through the wasteland around the time when he was acquiring the management contract from the City of Flagler Beach to rehabilitate the golf course and run it again as a club. He loved it. She did not.
“So we come back out, he opens my door, I get out, and he says, ‘Well, what did you think of this golf course?’” Belle said, recalling her husband’s words. “I said, ‘What golf course? I didn’t see a golf course.’ He’s like, ‘Belle, we could open this golf course and make it such a beautiful place again. It’s historic around here.’ And I said again, ‘What golf course? Where? You didn’t take me there yet.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, please envision.’ I was like, ‘This? This is the golf course? No, no, it’s not. No. I said.” She was dead set against it. She pointed to what she described as “this molded hole that is dilapidated.” He called it the clubhouse.
She worried it would sink the family’s finances
Somehow he convinced her, and everything changed. “I fell in love with the people and I fell in love with Flagler,” she said.
The love has not been entirely requited from the city. The relationship between Flagler Beach government and Flagler Golf Management, as the McManus called their company, has been a rollercoaster of recriminations, promises, unwanted surprises and two findings by the city that the company was in default of its lease, along with two threats to sever the lease. (You can glean a sample of the ongoing odyssey in the long list of previous articles at the foot of this one.) The city issued the last ultimatum last month, giving Flagler Golf four weeks to shape up. The city also invited Belle McManus to a city commission meeting to make her case–to prove that her company is in compliance or face termination.
McManus will be there, she says. Terry McManus will not. He’s at Avon park Work Camp, a minimum-security prison, serving four years for his third DUI conviction in 10 years. That’s only one of the complications behind Belle McManus’s recent history and struggles to keep the management company going. Before that, she and her husband contended with Covid’s effects on the business, and before that, with two hurricanes and the city digging through the course to build a drainage system unrelated to the course, all of which has hampered operations there through no fault of the McManus’s, Belle says.
As much of a shock as was her husband’s incarceration, the city’s attempts since last year to audit the company’s books have been another challenge, as was the latest final straw: that ultimatum. That aspect of the business was all new to Belle McManus when she had to take-over after last June.
She’s seen the numerous articles about her husband, about the troubled relationship, about commissioners losing patience with the club. The focus, she says, has always been on the city’s displeasure. Now she wanted to tell her side of the story. She is also hoping to meet with commissioners or City Manager William Whitson ahead of the March 10 meeting. Whitson had previously said he’d never heard from her–just as when the city contacted her to get documentation and financial data, she directed the city to her attorney, signaling a more confrontational attitude.
That wasn’t the intent, McManus said in her first public interview. “I was in a state of depression, confusion. I was heartbroken,” she said–not because of the letter, but because of what had happened to her husband, when he was found guilty in June. “I was overwhelmed. And I didn’t want to miss anything important. Because you have no idea the amount of mail, emails phone calls like what I was dealing with.”
The McManus’s home is in South Florida, three hours away. After a jury found Terry guilty in after Terry, you know,, “I had to drive home. Three hours, crying, bawling my eyes out. I talked to my dad. I talked to family,” Belle said. But the golf club? “That wasn’t the first thing on my mind. This is all new to me, and taking on everything by myself.”
Between her husband’s status (his case went through its own rollercoaster of hearings, as he was facing a separate felony fraud count that was dropped only in January) and learning to manage the club, she had to reinvent her approach. “I wasn’t the one dealing with the city for all these years. I wasn’t hands on. I was raising our children,” McManus said. The couple have three children, a 22-year-old Marine, a 21-year-old daughter in law school and a 13-year-old daughter.
“I also have my own business,” she continued. When I was there, hands on, I was physically working with staff, cleaning, cooking, serving, and I was with our customers–and friends, like everyone’s become friends. And so that was the relationship. I wasn’t behind the scenes dealing with John Deere equipment and the golf cart leases. When things go bad and what happens and fixing this, fixing that, I wasn’t there for any of that. But now, after doing it for seven months, I feel great of where the golf course is. It’s only going to keep getting better. I just keep putting more money back into the golf course. It’s making money. We upgraded our golf carts. We have been fixing the sprinklers, the irrigation. Nothing is cheap. It’s very expensive to run the golf course.”
She speaks of in recent years going into her children’s savings accounts fund to help finance the club, which has 10 employees–then reading in a stern and, to her, demeaning letter from the city manager that the course was an “embarrassment” to the city, or the letter’s implication that she was breaking the law by using volunteers at the club.
“My volunteers were very upset,” she said. “They are retired, they want to do something… this is where they’d love to come hang out, meet new neighbors meet up with old neighbors.” She has half a dozen of them putting part-time hours, including one who drops by only every few months. In exchange, they get to play golf. Some of them mentor her employees, showing them how to care for the greens or the machinery, some of them help newcomers feel welcomed among the regulars. The same volunteers, she said, have been helping the city picking up trash at the beach or mow grass for people–but barred from volunteering their time at the club, or paint markers or even a mural there.
The city has been frustrated by not getting the records it’s repeatedly asked for to conduct the audit. McManus says there never was an intention to be obstructive. When she took over for Terry, she crash-coursed her way through the company’s paperwork even though, as far as she was concerned, she’d turned over everything she had. She says she invited the city to sign into her company’s bank account if the city wished. “I already thought I was doing everything that they wanted. But it seems like everything I’m doing is not good enough,” she said, before stressing that she had no intention to be “punching the city.”
“I get it. I get what’s gone on in the past,” she said. “I only want us all to get along. I’m a human being. I’m a human being.” She said she reviles confrontation and doesn’t like the golf club being portrayed as if it’s been in a confrontation all this time. “We all want the same thing for the golf course. And I’m working extremely hard to make it happen.” It is happening, she said. “So when that was in that letter, when it was said that it’s an embarrassment and the owner doesn’t care–that’s false. I spend most of my days only regarding the golf course and fixing and adding to it and trying to make sure residents can enjoy it. It’s a family place. It’s not just for adults.” Not everyone wants to be at the beach, she said.
Two Sundays ago under a radiant sky some 50 golfers had turned up for a tournament organized by Marianne Schuettler–a bit of a legend herself at the club: she and her late husband Gunter moved to Flagler in the early 1990s, and she started working at the club’s pro shop. “We had people lined up here to the barn, see where the barn is?” she says, pointing to the structure about half a city block away. “It was always crowded. People just loved this golf course.”
Schuettler pulls down a framed, painted bird’s eye view of the course from the wall just as you enter the shop and restaurant. Her husband painted it in 1996. “It means everything to me,” she says of the golf course. “It means a lot to us all. All of us. All of us who live here.” Outside, a few people lounged on a couple of benches, chatting away. They weren’t playing that day. They were there just to hang out, shoot what breeze there was as golfers occasionally walked by, on foot or in carts.
This was the sort of atmosphere McManus says she’s fostered and she sees at the club routinely. This, she said, is what she doesn’t want customers and the city to lose, and what she’s working hard to preserve. She’ll be saying as much when she meets with the commission on March 10, assuming commissioners haven’t lost patience.