City Commission directs staff to work on ‘financially feasible’ options for Bobby Jones Golf Course renovations and to seek grants

Mayor makes motion calling for more community workshops, as well, to gain views of golfers about what they prefer among business plan suggestions

A graphic shows the course layout at Bobby Jones Golf Club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Acting on a three-part motion made by Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 this week to accept a master plan for renovating the Bobby Jones Golf Club. The board members directed staff not only to work on components of the plan “that are financially feasible,” as Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie put it in her motion, but also to look for grant opportunities to help cover the estimated $21.7-million expense. Further, her motion called for staff to conduct community workshops to show the public the various options included in the detailed report. Freeland Eddie said she wanted the golfers and other members of the public “to tell us what they want, whether that’s all, nothing or the scaled-down version” consultant Richard Mandell of Pinehurst, N.C., had proposed.

Mandell, who owns his own firm, Richard Mandell Golf Architecture, was hired by the commission in January.

Commissioner Hagen Brody cast the “No” vote on Oct. 2, saying the total expense of the most comprehensive renovation project Mandell had suggested “is something that we just can’t afford. … I want to keep Bobby Jones a public, high-quality course,” Brody added, but with scaled-down options.

Freeland Eddie objected to Brody’s suggestion that she revise her motion to incorporate a pared-down version of the plan Mandell had provided the board.

If golfers ask the commission to focus on funding specific, scaled-down aspects of the overall proposal, Freeland Eddie told Brody, “Fine.” It would not be appropriate for the commission to tell the golfers what they should have, she stressed.

Mandell explained that the $21.7-million estimate “satisfies all desires of all stakeholders.”

His 169-page report did offer a less expensive version of renovations, estimated at $18,713,127.18. “It’s not a bargain,” he said, “but anything less would compromise everyone’s goals.”

He also broke down potential work into various segments that the city could pursue. Among those are transforming the nine-hole John Gillespie Executive Course into a Play Development Center for people of all ages to learn the game or learn how to improve their game ($2,594,969.24); renovating just the existing British Course ($7,887,268.32); renovating the American Course ($6,030,579.64); and just building a new clubhouse with parking ($4,997,574.50).

(His firm’s use of AutoCAD design and drafting software allows him to come up with such precise estimates, Mandell explained at one point. “Our budgets are strong; we come in at or under budget with projects.”)

Mandell even offered pared-down versions of the various project segments, to achieve more cost savings.

However, Freeland Eddie zeroed in on the 16 potential grants Mandell and his team identified that could bring in $11,558,559.49.

“That’s a very big number,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert (left) and Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie participate in the Oct. 2 meeting. News Leader photo

Ten of those grants are associated with the environmental aspects of the property on which the golf club sits, Mandell pointed out. They involve water quality, flood-risk reduction, creation of wetlands, erosion control and habitat protection, among other possibilities, he said.

“How realistic is this?” Ahearn-Koch asked Mandell about the possibility of obtaining all the grants he had researched.

“I think they all are very realistic,” he replied.

“Golf courses are great for the environment,” Mandell told the board, as the grass helps filter stormwater. The environmental grants, he added, relate to “very specific things that we are doing at Bobby Jones Golf Course.”

Susan Martin, general manager of the club, told the commissioners that the city’s grant writer already had begun researching the list Mandell had created in an effort to determine how the city could qualify for the funds.

Up to $2,275,000 could be available just from the Southwest Florida Water Management District through its Cooperative Funding Initiative, the chart said. (See the related story in this issue.)

The board vote came almost two hours and 15 minutes after Mandell began his presentation. Ten members of the public offered differing views on the proposals, with golfers encouraging the board to act on at least some of Mandell’s options and others voicing a variety of reasons the board should not support any renovation of the golf club.

Shawn G. Pierson, president of the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course Inc., told the commission, “We must get the big things right,” calling the discussion that night “an important and essential first step.”

Although city resident Martin Hyde — who lost his bid for election to the commission this spring — maintained, “Golf is in decline nationally,” Mandell disputed that.

(From left) Jerry Fogle, director of parks and recreation for the city; Susan Martin, general manager of the Bobby Jones Golf Club; and Richard Mandell address the City Commission on Oct. 2. News Leader photo

Over the past 30 to 40 years, Mandell explained, many golf courses were built in an effort to sell residential real estate. More people did take up golf as a result of that, he said, but once that real estate “bubble” broke and the “economy went south … [those] people started leaving golf.”

Companies, such as Titleist, which have been in business for 50 or 60 years, he pointed out, are testament to the continuing interest in golf. “It’s not a dying game … at all.”

Research and results

After the City Commission hired him, Mandell said during his presentation, he spent a few days at the club, taking about half-a-dozen walks over the course with staff members “to learn about all 45 golf holes” as the basis for his work. “Generally speaking,” he continued, “the things that we heard most from the golfers … is that conditions are poor at Bobby Jones.”

A chart shows the standards for life expectancy of golf course features (right) and the age of those at the Bobby Jones Golf Course. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

He showed the board a chart that explains the average life certain facets of a course should have and how long it has been since those same features at Bobby Jones have been renovated or replaced. The measures he used for his comparisons, he noted, are the industry standards included in a study prepared jointly by the USGA Green Section, Golf Course Builders Association of America and the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

The following were among the examples he offered:

  • Tee boxes should last 15 to 20 years, but those at Bobby Jones have been in place more than 30 years.
  • An irrigation control system should last 10 to 15 years; the equipment at Bobby Jones is 30 years old.
  • Putting greens should have a life of 15 to 30 years; those at Bobby Jones have been in place more than 30 years.

Additionally, while courses should have drainage systems for sand bunkers, none exists at Bobby Jones.

“Fairway conditions are the poorest,” he said, based on golfers’ comments.

Photos in the business plan show conditions of areas of the course. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Vice Mayor Liz Alpert asked him about the “thatch” problem involving the first 3 inches of the fairways’ surface, Mandell explained that, over time on any golf course, organic material grows between the roots of the grass and the blades of grass. That “creates a layer of muck, so to speak.”

The material prevents rainwater and irrigated water from percolating into the ground, he added. That situation is “one of the biggest problems at Bobby Jones.”

If the top 3 inches of the fairways can be removed, he pointed out, “there’s sugary sand right below the surface.” Water once again would be able to drain easily into the ground, he added.

That aeration, Mandell continued, “hasn’t been done on a regular basis as often as it needs to be over the 90 years” the course has been in existence.

Donald Ross. Image from Wikimedia

Mandell also talked about the history of the course, especially the back nine holes of both the American and British courses, which were designed by Donald Ross. As the executive summary of the business plan noted, those were the first 18 holes available for play when the course opened in 1926.

The business plan says, “One of the giants of the golf architecture profession, Donald Ross is revered the world over not as much for his great routings and strategic merit as he is for his perceived greens complex designs and perceived trademark grass-faced bunkering.”

The plan adds, “Donald Ross was one of the most innovative, diverse, and challenge-taking designers of his or any other era.”

Ross was “arguably one of the top two or three golf course architects of all time,” Mandell told the commissioners. In fact, among the prospective grants Mandell listed to help cover renovation expenses at the Bobby Jones Golf Club, one focused on Ross’ link to the facility.

With the renovated 36 holes — including those designed by Ross — plus the practice facility and the nine-hole adjustable course, Mandell pointed out, “I don’t think there’s a facility in American that would have those combinations …”

When Commissioner Ahearn-Koch asked whether the club would be unique in the region, he responded, “I would say it would be unique to the world, really.”

Other facets of the plan

A graphic shows details about options for the clubhouse. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The business plan also includes recommendations for improving each hole on the British and American courses, and it features a number of options for adjusting the proposed Gillespie Development Center’s nine-hole course. Changing the direction of play over those holes from time to time would provide more enticement to golfers, Mandell pointed out, as golfers would appreciate the variety and tend to return more often to the club.

In discussing options for the clubhouse, Mandell said, “I’ve been in the golf business since 1990, and I’ve seen many [clubs choose] Taj Mahals, and I would not recommend that.”

Mandell worked with representatives of Fawley Bryant Architecture in Sarasota on concepts for a full-service building, the business plan says. The 40-year-old “commercial public facility has reached [the end of] its useful life,” the plan notes.

The upper end of expense for a new clubhouse, as proposed in the report, was just under $10 million, with the low range at $3.5 million.

Although Fawley Bryant had worked on the basis of a design with 25,850 square feet, Mandell said, his view was “that sounds like a lot.” He reduced the size to 24,081 square feet to achieve the lowest figure in the cost range.

The expense per square foot ran from $385 to $175, he told the board.