City Commission approves project, with financing details to be voted on later
City of Sarasota staff has begun negotiations with a Pinehurst, N.C., firm for the design of renovations of all 45 holes at the city’s Bobby Jones Golf Club, as well as plans for a new clubhouse and a golf course instruction center, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
The initiative followed a 4-1 City Commission vote on Dec. 11, which cleared the way for improvements staff and board members say are long overdue at the club.
A document City Manager Tom Barwin and staff provided to the board in advance of the meeting said that if the final design began in early 2019, “renovations could begin in the spring of 2020.”
The estimated cost of the renovations is $16.7-million. After the figure has been honed, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie noted on Dec. 11, the board members will be able to address plans for a bond referendum to cover the expense.
Assistant City Manager John Lege told the board on Dec. 11 that, since staff already had put together plans for a potential bond referendum, it would not take much time for a final presentation to be completed, so the commissioners could decide how to proceed.
Staff also explained that fees from golfers playing at Bobby Jones would be dedicated to paying off the bonds.
“Staff will come back to us with financing options,” Freeland Eddie told her colleagues after the Dec. 11 vote, adding, “The public will have another opportunity to weigh in.”
Barwin said at the end of the approximately three-hour special meeting that he hoped soon to be able to secure an agreement with the consulting company Richard Mandell Golf Architecture to complete the formal design for the Bobby Jones Golf Club improvements. Barwin added that about $735,000 in sales tax revenue set aside for the golf club could be utilized to cover the contract.
In response to a News Leader question this week, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, wrote in a Dec. 19 email that, if the contract negotiations reach a successful conclusion, an amendment would be drafted for the consulting contract with the Mandell firm. That amended contract then would come back to the City commission for approval, she noted.
On Jan. 3, 2017, the City Commission hired Richard Mandell, with the direction that Mandell’s eponymous firm would develop a comprehensive golf course master plan for Bobby Jones at a cost of $115,000.
During the Dec. 11 discussions, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch pointed to public meetings Mandell conducted in the city earlier this year, discussing options for the renovations. Having attended each of those, she said, she knew the demand was for all 45 holes to be renovated.
Along with the 18-hole American Course and the 18-hole British Course, the facility has the nine-hole Gillespie Executive Course.
Mandell also plans restoration of the historic Donald Ross holes at Bobby Jones Golf Club, as Ross courses are a major draw for golfers.
On Dec. 11, Mandell called the restoration of the Ross holes at Bobby Jones “a great marketing opportunity” for the city.
Only Commissioner Hagen Brody opposed the full renovation proposal. He has remained steadfast throughout discussions about the future of the city-owned property that interest in golf is declining. Moreover, he argued on Dec. 11 that his colleagues would be unfairly burdening future generations with paying off bonds for the renovations. He also predicted that Bobby Jones Golf Club will not be profitable even after all the planned improvements have been completed.
Brody called the idea of a bond referendum for the renovations “an outlandish expenditure.”
If the commissioners asked city residents how they would like to see $17 million spent, he continued, raising his voice, “I guarantee you that golf would not be near the top of our choices.”
During the special meeting, Kelly Strickland, the city’s finance director, presented a couple of options for financing the project. If the city financed the estimated expense of $16,722,907 for 10 years, she said, the average annual debt service payment would be $2,011,547. In that event, the owner of a house valued at $200,000 would pay an extra $39.76 per year in property taxes, Strickland added.
If the commission chose a 15-year financing plan, she continued, the average annual debt service payment would be $1,479,303.
Commissioner Freeland Eddie made the motion to proceed with the renovations of the golf club, calling for the projects to be phased-in.
(Mandell recommended that 18 holes be renovated in the first year.)
Commissioner Willie Shaw asked whether Freeland Eddie would accept an amendment calling for all employees of the golf club to be city employees, given the city’s commitment to paying a livable wage.
Freeland Eddie agreed to that.
A brief history of golf at Bobby Jones
At the beginning of the special meeting, City Manager Barwin noted that discussions about the future of Bobby Jones Golf Club began about four years ago.
He reminded the commissioners that the last time they addressed the issues was on May 31. (That day, they also agreed to renovate all 45 holes. Again, Brody was the only one to vote “No.”)
Altogether, Barwin pointed out, the golf club comprises 325 acres, which “have served the community very well over the years.” The facilities are an important stormwater retention area during heavy rains, he noted, and urban wildlife is abundant on the property.
The city opened the 18 Donald Ross-designed holes of the Bobby Jones Golf Club in 1927, Barwin continued. Then in 1952, nine more holes were added; in 1967, another nine; and in 1977, the final nine holes.
According to the National Golf Foundation, Barwin continued, only 24 other 45-hole golf courses exist in Florida.
In 1997, Barwin noted, the number of starts at the club hit its peak, at 164,000; by the end of the 2018 fiscal year — on Sept. 30 — the figure had dropped to 66,698.
Because of the Great Recession, city leaders deferred maintenance on the grounds, Barwin pointed out. That led to a deterioration of the facilities and to a decline in the number of golfers playing the courses.
With the renovations completed, “There’s no reason you can’t get back to that [164,000 figure],” Mandell said.
The past couple of years, the city has had to provide a subsidy to the golf club because it no longer has reserves remaining from its profitable years. The subsidy for the current fiscal year will be about $650,000, Assistant City Manager Lege noted.
As for trends in golf: Barwin reported that a National Golf Foundation survey found 23.8 million golfers in the United States in 2017, down from an estimated 30 million in 2005.
However, during public comments that were part of the meeting, Norman Dumaine told the board members that a May report by the National Golf Foundation said, “Golf’s participation base remains stable,” with the 2017 number Barwin had cited the same as the 2016 figure.
Dumaine added, “Another 8.3 million played ‘off-course’ at facilities like Top Golf, driving ranges, or indoor simulators. That’s more than 32 million in the overall participation pool.”
Moreover, Dumaine said, young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 “comprise more than 37% of all on-course golfers. Richard Singer of the National Golf Foundation sees signs that golf is at a turning point,” Dumaine added.
The National Golf Foundation also reported in October that the number of golfers in Sarasota rose 6% from 2017 to 2018, Mandell said.
The financial questions
When the city commissioners turned to the financing questions during the meeting, Strickland pointed out that if the board chose not to construct a new clubhouse, but it agreed to renovate all 45 holes, the cost would be about $13,356,018. The project would include the proposed new driving range, she said.
Although the clubhouse has been expected to cost about $3.4 million, Mandell later said that he would work to lower that expense.
If the board members elected to renovate just 27 holes, Strickland continued, the expense would be about $15,236,753 with a new clubhouse and $11,869,865 without one. That option did include renovation of the Gillespie Course, as well as the new driving range and the golf instruction — or development — center.
When Commissioner Freeland Eddie asked about the condition of the clubhouse roof and the air-conditioning problems that Bobby Jones Manager Sue Martin had explained to the board earlier this year, Barwin told Freeland Eddie, “Sue has had the roof patched … but it’s not a long-range solution.”
Martin added that one estimate she has received for the air conditioning repairs was $60,000, but another company indicated the expense could be less than half that.
Martin did voice concern, though, that given the cascade of problems with the clubhouse over the past year, the plumbing and sewer equipment could fail at any time.
Turning back to the courses, Mandell responded to one of Commissioner Brody’s questions by explaining, “We are building new holes, bottom line. … It’s about like stripping a car down and rebuilding it from the bottom up.”
When Brody asked about a longer phasing period for the renovations, Mandell told him that the city would end up spending more money if it pursued such a timeline, as contractors’ mobilization expenses would have to be factored in for each disparate segment of work.
However, Mandell did note that the commissioners could delay constructing a new clubhouse.
Referencing the analogy Mandell used earlier, Commissioner Shaw said that if someone were planning to renovate a ragtop, “You’re not going to fix the body without doing the top, which would be the clubhouse [in the case of the Bobby Jones Golf Club].”
At another point, Mayor Liz Alpert indicated that it made no sense to her to renovate 36 holes instead of the full 45, “when the cost differential is very small.”
That comment won applause from people attending the meeting.
With the full 45 holes, Alpert continued, the club could see a higher number of rounds of golf. Then, with appropriate pricing of the fees, she added, more revenue would result to help pay off the bonds.
“[With] a golf course that is vibrant and completely rebuilt … your rounds are going to go up, no matter what happens,” Mandell told the commissioners.
During the public meetings held in the summer, he continued, he learned “everybody … is open to paying more than they’re paying now” at Bobby Jones. Further, Mandell indicated that people from out of state would pay even higher fees.
Commissioner Freeland Eddie added that, with the development center, the opportunity also would exist to generate more interest in golf among youth in the community.
She added that she believes the renovations will lead to more rounds of golf, making the club more profitable.
During the public comments, Les McCurdy told the board, “You can make it the best municipal golf course in the state of Florida.”