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The School of Hospitality Management at Florida International University May
 Operate the Shuttered Country Club of Coral Gables as a Conference Center
By Elaine De Valle, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 21, 2008 - The search for a new operator at the Country Club of Coral Gables has turned academic, as Florida International University -- specifically its School of Hospitality Management -- has expressed an interest in running the facility.

The club closed last month amid legal and financial troubles.

The city of Coral Gables, which owns the property and had an agreement with a private firm to run it after a 2001 restoration, wants to find a new operator and city officials have talked with FIU about a partnership to run it as a conference center.

Joseph West, dean of the School of Hospitality Management, said the school will take over the Roz and Cal Kovens Center on FIU's Biscayne Bay campus in July as part of FIU's budget reorganization. The country club could serve as an extension of that, "almost like a satellite center of the Kovens Center," West said.

It would benefit businesses in the area to have a professional staff run a top-notch conference center that they could utilize, he added.

West said he hoped the country club, at 997 North Greenway Dr., would continue "to serve the people of Coral Gables as far as their banquet needs and catering needs." It's still uncertain how that scenario would address members, many of whom have paid thousands of dollars.

LEGAL BATTLE

The Country Club of Coral Gables was closed April 30 by the operator, Granada LLC, in the midst of a legal battle with the city over missed monthly lease payments of $25,500 -- now totaling more than $630,000 -- and cost overruns on the historic landmark's restoration.

The city sued Granada last year after discovering the missed lease payments. Granada, headed by Stuart Bornstein of the Hotel Place St. Michel, countersued for cost overruns, saying it had to pay about $2 million more in construction costs in the restoration.

The city moved to evict the firm, and succeeded -- but only after Granada gave up the ship.

The city will seek a new operator for the public facility. Some of the club's 600 members are trying to keep the club or parts of the club open at least through the summer.

City Manager David Brown said he has received phone calls from several parties interested in running the facility and said he was interested in hearing more from FIU. Mayor Don Slesnick said that among those interested are Bill Hansen, who manages The Bankers Club of Miami, and Don Peebles, who owns the Bath Club in Miami Beach.

'GREAT BUILDING'

"It's a great building on a great property in a great community, so it's natural that it would generate a lot of interest," Slesnick said.

Commissioner Ralph Cabrera, an FIU alum (Class of '82) who has led the drive to open the club to the community, got the ball rolling with a call to FIU President Mitch Maidique last week.

"I thought it might be an interesting opportunity to have a public operator running what I consider to be a public facility," Cabrera said.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald

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