Board members ask consultant to take a look at reducing playing holes from 45 to 27 and then to 18
After reviewing a national consultant’s figures projecting deficits ranging from $804,300 to $1,041,900 for fiscal years 2024 through 2028, even after the complete renovations of the City of Sarasota’s Bobby Jones Golf Course, the City Commission voted unanimously this week to consider new options for the property.
Among those is the potential collaboration with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, to create a conservation easement encompassing the entire 300 acres of the golf complex.
Mayor Liz Alpert’s motion also called for the consultant — Richard Singer, senior director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation (NGF) — to analyze the revenue and expense picture for Bobby Jones Golf Course if it were reduced from 45 holes to 27 and 18. She did tell Singer to include plans for the 9-hole Gillespie Development Center and a new $3-million clubhouse.
Singer said it likely would take him five to six weeks to complete that further analysis. The city will have to pay him extra for that work, he noted. (The 10-year Golf Course Business Plan that he had completed for the 45 holes cost the city $14,000, according to a memo provided to the commissioners prior to the special meeting on July 9.)
Singer was positive in his assertions about the potential of the golf course to rebound financially after the renovation of both the American and British courses and the transformation of the Gillespie Executive Course into a facility where people — especially teens — could learn the game on holes that would be easier to play. Singer also explained that it would be more cost-effective to construct a new clubhouse than if the city paid for all the necessary improvements to the existing structure and its continuing maintenance.
During his appearance before the City Commission on Feb. 19, Richard Mandell of Pinehurst, N.C., who is handling the design of the golf course renovations, told the board members that, following the planned revitalization of the original 18 holes created by world-renowned golf course designer Donald Ross, he expected people would come from all over the world to play at Bobby Jones. Mandell called Ross was “arguably one of the top two or three golf course architects of all time.”
Still, Singer pointed out on July 9, the debt service on $17 million in general revenue bonds city staff told him to factor into the financial plan would result in balance sheet losses for at least several years. The plan would be to pay back the bonds over 15 years, he noted.
“Our greatest concern,” City Manager Tom Barwin acknowledged to the board, is that if the economy takes another downturn, the city would be obligated to make the payments, regardless of potentially more pressing issues might arise.
Barwin then delved into the conservation easement proposal. “The more we’ve looked at the course, the more we understand what a critical environmental role this course plays.” The rains this week underscored that, he pointed out, with the Bobby Jones Golf Course serving in a major stormwater drainage capacity for the area extending south from the Mall at University Town Center, at University Parkway.
That Bobby Jones property, he continued, might “perhaps be priceless someday” because of its environmental role in the community.
Staff had researched how to enhance the history of golf in Sarasota — the course opened in 1926, he noted — while protecting the 300 acres in perpetuity.
On June 28, the city announced that staff had started discussions with the Conservation Foundation. Generally, a conservation easement involves the sale of development rights to property. In this case, staff has indicated, the Conservation Foundation would raise money to purchase those rights. Part of the funds could be placed in an endowment to be used for the management of the areas of the Bobby Jones not used for golf, Barwin indicated on July 9.
“The city would always own the land,” Barwin also pointed out.
If the commission chose to pursue the conservation easement idea, Barwin said, the strategy would be to “raise multiple millions of dollars,” part of which could be used to plug any future budget gaps resulting from the continued golf operations.
Barwin emphasized that the primary goal would be “to preserve [the land] for its environmental purpose.”
Already, Barwin noted, “We have about $2 million of environmental improvements planned for the course in this renovation.”
“I’ve talked to a good number of the funders and philanthropists in the area,” he continued, pointing out that he had learned that a number of business people in the community do play golf. “I think it’s possible to just [create this easement] so it would be a terrific course [and it would be] backstopped financially while we enhance the environment.”
No one from the Foundation could be present that day to offer a presentation, Barwin pointed out, but he could schedule an appearance in the future, if that was the board’s desire.
Debating the future of the course itself
As he has in the past, Commissioner Hagen Brody argued again on July 9 for reducing the number of holes at Bobby Jones. “I’ve tried to convey … that quality is more important than quantity.”
Brody consistently has voted against renovations to the entire 45 holes.
In response to questions from Brody, consultant Singer said, “There are examples of success in all types [of courses],” including those with 45 and 54 holes. In fact, he said, a municipal course in Georgia has 63 holes, “and it’s successful.”
Speaking specifically of Bobby Jones, Singer continued, “I think that your planning team can make it work regardless of how you ultimately envision it.” Nonetheless, he added, reducing the number of holes likely would make it harder to achieve a positive cash flow at some point in the future.
Singer also pointed out, “New investment in municipal golf tends to coincide with improved performance,” calling that “an almost universal finding.”
“Golfers will seek you out,” Singer told the commissioners. If they are served well at Bobby Jones Golf Course, he said, “They’ll come back.”
Singer also pointed out, “You’re providing a public service to the community with this golf facility. The intent of it is not to be profitable. … It’s a public policy decision,” he added, not a business decision.
Facts and figures
If the commissioners chose to proceed with renovations of the entire 45 holes, Singer encouraged them to undertake the project in one phase. That would entail closing the facility after the end of high tourist season in 2020 and then starting construction. The goal would be to reopen the full complex in October 2021.
The second option would be to improve the British Course first and then undertake the work on the American Course. Although that would leave one 18-hole facility open to the public, he explained that his calculations showed the revenue generated would not be sufficient to offset the fixed costs associated with having the facility open.
The phased approach also would mean the renovations and new construction would take an additional 18 months, he noted, with completion in 2022.
“You’re about a million dollars better to go with Option A than Option B,” he said.
The chart he had prepared for the board, with projected revenue and expenses for the fiscal years of 2024 through 2028, showed that operating income for Bobby Jones would rise from $769,300 in FY24 to as high as $1,022,000 in FY26.
However, the debt service each year for the bonds would be $1,598,000.
In providing recommendations about fees for golfers after the renovations have been completed, Singer suggested a peak weekday non-resident fee of $54 in the 2021 fiscal year, plus $20 for cart rental. Residents would receive a 25% discount, he proposed. Fees for residents would be as low as $11 or $12 a round in the summer.
Further, Singer pointed out, “You have an inventory of tee times to sell to the public. Not all tee times are created equal.”
In fact, he said in response to commissioners’ questions, the possibility exits for raising the rates even higher for the most desirable tee times during the height of tourist season.
“I think that the overall plan looks very doable, very reasonable for the City of Sarasota,” Singer told the commissioners. “I think that what you’re preparing to do here is consistent with Sarasota.” An outsider, such as he himself, Singer explained, sees Sarasota “as a location of aspiration. … A lot of golfers find their way to Sarasota and to Florida in general, but to Sarasota in particular.”
Moreover, he continued, as someone who spends each day studying golf, he could tell the board members, “Golf is not dying, but it certainly has challenges, but places like this are in many ways the exception.”