A consultant says Bobby Jones Golf Club is in need of major renovations — and that there’s no guarantee the course will ever turn a profit.
Throughout his 169-page business plan recommending renovations for Bobby Jones Golf Club, golf architect Richard Mandell repeatedly states the 45-hole, city-owned facility has fallen into disrepair.
Nearly all of the course features have outlived their recommended lifespans. The lack of infrastructure investments has diminished the reputation of Bobby Jones.
“Public perception of Bobby Jones Golf Club … is of an old and tired, rundown (municipal course) with terrible conditions compared to surrounding semi-private courses,” Mandell wrote.
Mandell, hired in January to develop a master plan for improvements at Bobby Jones, presented his finished report to the Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection board Sept. 19. In addition to detailing hole redesigns and drainage upgrades, Mandell also provided an estimate for the work needed to restore Bobby Jones to a high-quality public course.
The total price for a comprehensive renovation of Bobby Jones is $21.6 million, Mandell estimates. Recognizing the significance of that expense, he also shared a “less-involved” plan — with a price tag of $18.7 million.
The city commissioned Mandell’s report because of declining revenues and activity at Bobby Jones. In the budget for 2017-18, the municipal course will receive a $425,000 subsidy from the city’s general fund. Bobby Jones is supposed to be a self-sustaining operation, but after six consecutive years of losses, the facility’s reserve fund has run dry.
Mandell said most of the investments he recommended are the only way that Bobby Jones could become a successful long-term golf operation. But, questioned by members of the parks board, he said there would still uncertainty about the course’s profitability.
“If the city of Sarasota wants Bobby Jones to stay as Bobby Jones, they have to rebuild these features,” Mandell said. “Will it be self-sufficient? I can’t answer that.”
Hitting the green
That uncertainty didn’t sit well with John Tuccillo, a member of the parks board.
He was complimentary of Mandell’s work, but felt the city wasn’t in a good position to make a decision about the future of Bobby Jones without an equally thorough analysis of the business operations after any upgrades were implemented.
“We are operating here under the ‘Field of Dreams’ assumption — if you build it, they will come,” Tuccillo said. “Golf is a dying sport; golf courses are a dying business. There really isn’t any kind of guarantee that the financial performance of Bobby Jones Golf Course is going to be improved even by implementing your full plan.”
Mandell said some expenses could be offset with grant funding. Still, Tuccillo feared the prospect of the city investing upward of $10 million only for the course to keep losing money.
Mandell has objected to the characterization of golf as a dying sport. Instead, he says golf went through a 30- to 40-year period of bloat, with the bubble bursting recently. As a result, there is more competition among golf operations.
He admits that’s a challenge for Bobby Jones. But he believes the municipal facility has its own advantages. It has history in the community. It bears the name of a legendary golfer, and renowned golf architect Donald Ross designed the course. It’s not surrounded by residential properties, and it’s priced competitively.
And he thinks the city benefits from maintaining 425 acres of open space. The idea of the city cutting ties with the golf operation at Bobby Jones was not part of his analysis.
The City Commission is scheduled to discuss Mandell’s report Monday, Oct. 2. Mandell has itemized his recommended improvements, anticipating some fiscal concerns from officials. He’s also presented a four-year phasing plan for the renovations.
He knows the scope of the upgrades is jarring. But based on the current status of Bobby Jones, he said there’s no reasonable way to keep operating the facility without a major overhaul.
“Forget everything this report says — the bottom line is, at some point, these features need to be rebuilt in order to function as a golf course,” Mandell said. “That’s no matter what.”
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