Majority of City Commission agrees on need to renovate entire 45 holes at Bobby Jones Golf Club

Community workshops planned for June 13 and June 14, while board members agree to another discussion about how to pay for project

An aerial view shows part of the Bobby Jones Golf Club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took more than three hours, but the Sarasota City commissioners voted 4-1 on May 31 to approve a series of steps designed to lead to the revival of the Bobby Jones Golf Club as a major destination in the community.

On June 13 and June 14, the public will be invited to attend workshops on the future of the city-owned property. Consultant Richard Mandell, whom the city has paid $100,000 to undertake a thorough analysis of the facility, will lead the sessions.

That was one facet of a multi-pronged motion made by Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie and seconded by Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. Freeland Eddie also called for the focus of the workshops and continuing discussions to be the entire 45 holes at the course.

The estimate for the renovations of all those holes, plus a new clubhouse and a Development Center where people could learn how to play golf, was $15,987,906.88 — plus another $735,000 the city already has set aside. That was the information Mandell and Susan Martin, general manager of the Bobby Jones Golf Club, provided the board during its special meeting on May 31. Research already undertaken by city staff indicates that $3,544,247.02 could be obtained through grants to offset the expense.

A chart shows life expectancy for key parts of the infrastructure at the Bobby Jones Golf Course and the actual life of those features. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The motion further asked that City Attorney’s Office draft an ordinance for the re-establishment of an advisory council for the Bobby Jones Golf Club and that staff continue to look into not only grant opportunities but also the potential of public/private partnerships to assist with paying for the needed improvements.

Additionally, the commission will hold a separate discussion of its own to talk about immediate budget issues regarding the two most pressing needs at the course, which — Mandell explained — are new drainage and irrigation systems.

Referring to the latter, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the board, “This is what would make the course playable. This is the bread and butter.” With those improvements and new grass on the fairways, Brown added, “I believe you will draw a lot of golfers back to Bobby Jones.”
Applause rang out in the Commission Chambers at City Hall.

Mandell has estimated the expense of the irrigation/drainage project at $11 million. The irrigation system was installed in the 1980s, Martin pointed out. Because of its age, she explained, it has become increasingly difficult to find parts when something breaks.

“Roughly 30 years is the end of an irrigation system,” Mandell said, and the system on the American Course — the most current one — was installed in 1988.

(From left) Richard Mandell, Susan Martin and Jerry Fogle address the City Commission on May 31. News Leader photo

Finally, Freeland Eddie’s motion called for a report to come back to the commission within 60 days regarding the workshop discussions.

City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners after their vote that staff would work with Mandell, who is based in Pinehurst, N.C., on options Mandell has offered for raising fees per round to generate more income from the course to pay for all the proposed work.

In response to a question from Freeland Eddie, Mandell estimated that it would take three to six months for his firm to create the necessary designs for improvements, so staff would have the materials necessary to pursue specific grants. He added that he expected work could begin at the club within a year of getting direction from the commission on how to proceed.

Commissioner Hagen Brody cast the “No” vote on May 31, stressing his view that the commission should be focused on reducing the number of holes from 45 to 27, to cut expenses. He also reminded his colleagues, as he has on a number of occasions in the past, “I think we have way too many advisory boards.”

A bar graph shows the trends for revenue and expenses at Bobby Jones Golf Club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Ahearn-Koch talked of the vast number of emails she had received from city residents, conversations she has had with people about the club and the comments from audience members who turned out for the special meeting that evening. Based on all she had seen and heard, she said, she felt the commission should focus on the entire 45 holes: the British Course, the American Course and the nine-hole John Gillespie Executive Course. The whole property, she stressed, is of value to the community from environmental and historic perspectives, she noted. Moreover, given comments by Martin, the club manager, the city would not be able to save enough money on maintenance for a reduced number of holes to pursue that option.

Ahearn-Koch also pointed to data Martin had provided about the fact that the club had built up a reserve fund of $1,942,806, from which it drew down after the start of the recession to balance its budget every year. The City Commission had to provide the club a $425,000 subsidy for the current fiscal year. During a February budget workshop, Kelly Strickland, director of financial administration, estimated the subsidy at $1 million for the 2019 fiscal year. However, on May 31, Martin indicated that the latest estimate is $600,000.

“When you have something like that,” Ahearn-Koch said of the golf club, “and you take care of it and you invest in it, it’s going to be profitable. … We have the numbers in front of us.” The current financial situation of the Bobby Jones Golf Club, Ahearn-Koch stressed, “ is the result of neglect.”

Mayor Liz Alpert also voiced support for keeping open the entire 45 holes. She called Mandell’s proposal for reviving the facility “an outstanding plan,” including a new clubhouse and the development center. Many members of the public travel to IMG in Bradenton and pay a lot of money to learn how to play golf there, Alpert pointed out. “We can offer lessons for those people who can’t go to IMG.”

A chart shows figures over the past several years reflecting the club’s budget. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Moreover, she said, having a nice clubhouse at Bobby Jones, where “you can charge for food and alcohol,” would increase income from the complex.

Past and present

Club Manager Martin provided the city commissioners an overview of the Bobby Jones Golf Club before they listened to comments from 16 members of the public on May 31.

Although the original facility opened in 1926, Martin noted, it did not become the Bobby Jones Golf Club until 1927. Its mission statement, she pointed out, says, “To grow the game of golf by providing an enjoyable experience on well-maintained courses in a price range that is affordable to all residents and visitors of the City of Sarasota and is a financially self-sustaining enterprise account operation.”

Municipal courses were created around the country, she explained, to make golf more affordable and accessible to the public. According to the National Golf Foundation, Martin continued, in 2017, the national average for a round of golf was $34. The Bobby Jones average that year was $23.

From Christmas to Easter each year, the average cost of a round of golf at all the courses in Sarasota County, she continued, is $82.56. The range is $46 to $180, Martin noted. During that same period, the rate at Bobby Jones is $49 per round.

And, she said, “We serve all skill levels.”

A graphic shows potential options for increasing revenue from the club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The three courses at the complex have been a key factor in its popularity, she indicated. “Even with our failing conditions, people are passionate about Bobby Jones.”

Yet another highly important factor for the City of Sarasota, Martin told the board, is that John Hamilton Gillespie — a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was the city’s first mayor — is credited with bringing golf to the United States.

Furthermore, she said, “We were the first Florida golf course and the first to desegregate.”

The Bobby Jones Golf Club saw use begin to decline in concert with the onset of the Great Recession, Martin pointed out. From 2006 to 2016, the club recorded 20% fewer starts of rounds. The city’s concurrent lack of investment in the facilities, she noted, also has led to its decline.

As consultant Mandell pointed out in his report to the City Commission in October 2017, most of the features at the club are well past their life expectancy.

Yet, Martin said —as she showed the board a relevant slide — the club has been “pretty much” holding its own in terms of expenses. The problem, she said, has been declining revenue.

When Commissioner Willie Shaw asked about the national trend of private management handling public courses, Mandell replied, “A few years ago, it really peaked.”

Jerry Fogle, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, added that private companies run 16% of the municipal courses in the country. “If they were that successful,” he said, “I think that number would be much higher.”