Split City Commission approves design contract for renovations of Bobby Jones Golf Club

Richard Mandell Golf Architecture of Pinehurst to work on permitting and engineering initiatives, as well, for all 45 holes

Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission has approved a $1,053,400 amendment to its contract with a golf course consulting firm to enable the firm to proceed with designing renovations of the full 45-hole Bobby Jones Golf Club.

Richard Mandell Golf Architecture of Pinehurst, N.C., also will handle permitting, civil engineering and irrigation engineering for the planned improvements to the 300-acre, city-owned complex, City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners on Feb. 19.

Additionally, the firm will research grant opportunities with the hope of securing funding to help with the estimated overall project expense of $16,772,907.

However, Barwin noted, the firm’s new agreement does not encompass any work associated with a clubhouse.

The improvements the City Commission has endorsed will include the revitalization of the original 18 holes created by world-renowned golf course designer Donald Ross, Barwin explained.

During remarks to the City Commission in October 2017, Richard Mandell — representing his eponymous company — pointed out that Ross was “arguably one of the top two or three golf course architects of all time.” People will come from all over the world to play a Donald Ross course, Mandell indicated.

This section of the Richard Mandell Golf Architecture master plan for Bobby Jones Golf Club provides details about Donald Ross and the holes Ross designed at the city-owned facility. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I don’t think there’s a facility in American that would have those combinations,” Mandell added, referring to the 36 holes of the American and British courses at Bobby Jones — including the holes designed by Ross — plus a driving range and a nine-hole adjustable Gillespie Development Center course.

The Gillespie Center has been proposed for the instruction of golf, in an effort to win new players of the game and, ultimately, more regular patrons at Bobby Jones.

The completion of the work Mandell will undertake with the contract amendment, Barwin added on Feb. 19, will “allow us to get our most competitive prices” after putting the project elements out to bid.

“We expect to be able to review the [design] plans at [the] 30%, 60% and 90% completion [marks],” Barwin said.

Further, Barwin recommended that either he or the commission go ahead and appoint members to an ad hoccommittee to oversee the work the commission authorized that day. He suggested that at least one accountant and golfers, as well as a member of the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Club organization, serve on that advisory committee.

Opposing votes

Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Hagen Brody cast the “No” votes on Feb. 19.

Brody continually has voiced his opposition to improving all 45 holes of the Bobby Jones Golf Club. On Feb. 19, he also pointed to the fact that the commission never has voted on how it would pay for the improvements that Richard Mandell has proposed.

Barwin responded that staff was following the direction provided by the commissioners and the public. “Our impression was that those conversations were had …”

A 2016 aerial map shows Bobby Jones Golf Club in the city of Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 11, 2018, Assistant City Manager John Lege said that he and staff already had put together plans for a potential bond referendum. Fees paid by golfers at the club would be used to pay off the bonds, other staff reported.

On Feb. 19, Barwin pointed out that staff also was working on a plan to “go to the bond market and borrow money to pay for the construction costs …”

“There has not been a vote,” Brody said.

“It is true the bond issue will have to come back here for your authorization to proceed,” Barwin replied.

A business plan that will be completed within six to eight weeks will provide guidance on the fees that should be charged at Bobby Jones to finance any bond debt, Jerry Fogle, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, added.

Susan Martin, the golf club manager, explained that the city had hired a person with the National Golf Foundationto “work closely with Richard Mandell” on that business plan.

In response to Brody’s remarks — and his repeated reiteration of several of his complaints on Feb. 19 — Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said, “I was under the impression that we were here to talk about Mr. Mandell’s agreement and not to rehash the decisions that we already made on Dec. 11, 2018.”

A bar graph presented to the City Commission in June 2018 shows the trends for revenue and expenses at Bobby Jones Golf Club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During that final regular meeting for the commission last year, the board members voted 4-1 to approve staff’s negotiations with Mandell for the design of the renovations to all 45 holes at Bobby Jones Golf Club. Brody was the sole commissioner to vote “No” that day.

Ahearn-Koch added on Feb. 19 that not only had the city commissioners discussed the proposed improvements to the facilities numerous times, but also that Mandell had made a several trips to the city to talk with members of the public, who want to see the renovations undertaken at Bobby Jones.

Freeland Eddie raised a number of questions about language in the contract amendment with Mandell’s firm.

“I do 200 contracts a year, roughly,” Deputy City Attorney Michael A. Connolly told her. “I protect my client the best I can,” he added, “and the concerns you’re expressing don’t cause me to lose sleep.”

Other commission questions

Ahearn-Koch also asked Martin, the golf club manager, whether Mandell would be available for multiple city staff meetings, if those prove necessary as Mandell’s team works through permitting issues as part of the new scope of work.

“He has been available any time we request him to be here,” Martin replied.

A graphic prepared for the May 31, 2018 City Commission meeting shows potential options for increasing revenue from the club. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to questions from Mayor Liz Alpert, city Purchasing Department General Manager David Boswell pointed out that he had consulted with colleagues in procurement, the Golf Architects Association and representatives of golf clubs to determine whether the fee the city would be paying Mandell for the design and permitting work would be consistent with what they had seen. The responses he had received, Boswell said, indicated that the “average is 6 to 10% of the construction cost …” Mandell’s contract fee comes out to 6.2% of the estimated expense of the renovations at Bobby Jones Golf Club, Boswell added, putting it “at the lower end of the scale. … My colleagues seemed to think we were getting a pretty good price.”

Moreover, Fogle said of Mandell, “We think he’s done a great job. … He’s met our expectations and then some.”

During a Feb. 15 email to Barwin, explaining details about his fees in response to public criticism, Mandell wrote, “I am always available to provide the City exactly what they need in order to provide the best possible product for the citizens of Sarasota regardless of how many hours it takes.”

A mix of public concerns

Three of the four speakers who addressed the City Commission before the vote on Feb. 19 criticized the plans for proceeding with work at Bobby Jones Golf Club. Only Leo Fitzgerald voiced support of all aspects of the agreement with Mandell.

Another speaker, Shawn Pierson, president of the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Club, said his organization is fully supportive of the revitalization of the facilities. However, he noted City Manager Barwin’s recommendation regarding the advisory committee. Pierson said that group should have been established months ago, after the City Commission first discussed it. The committee should have vetted the new Mandell agreement, Pierson added.

Further, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Board also should have reviewed the scope of work for the agreement, before the matter was placed on a City Commission agenda, Pierson told the board.

Bobby Jones, past and present

(From left) Jerry Fogle, Susan Martin and David Boswell listen as Deputy City Attorney Mike Connolly answers questions on Feb. 19. News Leader photo

The original portion of what became the Bobby Jones Golf Club opened in 1926, Martin, the facility’s manager, explained to the City Commission during a special meeting on May 31, 2018. The complex took on its current name in 1927, she noted.

The club’s mission statement 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.”

Martin also explained on May 31, 2018 that the club had built up a reserve fund from which it was able to draw during the Great Recession to balance its budget. That fund had grown to $1,942,806, she pointed out, thanks to the popularity of the courses.

However, as constraints on the city’s finances led to reductions in maintenance at the club, and the deteriorating grounds led to decreased interest among golfers to play at Bobby Jones, city subsidies became necessary to plug the complex’s budget holes.

The City Commission had to provide a $425,000 supplement to the club’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year. The estimate for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2018, is in the range of $600,000, Martin reported on May 31, 2018.

A chart shows figures over the past several years reflecting the Bobby Jones Golf Club’s budget. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Martin told the commissioners on Feb. 19 that the club’s fee for a county resident for 18 holes now that high tourist season is underway is $54; for a non-resident, $59. “And currently our revenue is up,” she added.

On Jan. 3, 2017, the City Commission hired Mandell’s firm “to develop a comprehensive Golf Course Master Plan at a cost of $115,000,” a staff memo noted in advance of the Feb. 19 meeting.

In discussing plans to bring the 45 holes back up to the standards necessary to win renewed player interest, Mandell has reported that many facets of the club’s infrastructure have served longer than national golf standards dictate.

For example, he told the City Commission in October 2017, tee boxes are expected to last 15 to 20 years, and those at Bobby Jones are more than 30 years old. Sand in the bunkers has a life expectancy of five to seven years; at Bobby Jones, the sand is more than 20 years old. Irrigation heads can last up to 30 years, he said, but those at Bobby Jones are more than 30 years old.

Last fall, the city undertook a project to ameliorate drainage problems on the American Course until the full renovations can begin. The expense was $158,750, city Senior Communications Manager Jan Thornburg told The Sarasota News Leader.

A similar project is planned on the British Course after high tourist season ends this year.