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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 8, 2018 6 months ago

Bobby Jones Golf Club's financial woes continue

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The municipal golf course could need another $400,000 subsidy before the end of the fiscal year — and a $1 million subsidy next year.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Sue Martin, the manager of Bobby Jones Golf Club, can tell you a long list of challenges the city-owned facility faces.

The infrastructure of the 45-hole complex is in disrepair. A 2017 report from an outside consultant said the course could use more than $21 million in renovations.

There are lots of other competitors in the region, many of which are able to offer competitive rates and courses that are in better condition. And, in general, the golf industry throughout Florida is seeing fewer rounds played.

During the past three years, these issues have been reflected in the city’s budget discussions. Ahead of approving the 2017-18 budget, staff requested a $425,000 general fund subsidy for operations at Bobby Jones. Although the course is intended to be self-sustaining, its reserves had run out for the first time staff could recall.

Now, as the city looks ahead to the 2018-19 budget, the issues appear to be deepening. A preliminary estimate suggests Bobby Jones could need a $1 million subsidy in the next fiscal year. And, before this year is over, staff could come back to the commission to ask for another $400,000 to fund Bobby Jones in the 2017-18 fiscal year — the $425,000 subsidy proving insufficient to buoy operations.

Despite all those challenges, Martin seems confident there’s a path to restoring Bobby Jones to a more sustainable place.

“It’s a gem,” Martin said. “It just needs some polishing right now.”

The City Commission expressed more trepidation about the future of Bobby Jones. At a Feb. 26 budget meeting, the board directed staff to come back with additional information about why the course appeared to be faring worse than originally projected.

“That’s really outrageous,” City Commissioner Hagen Brody said. “I think the community is going to agree that subsidizing that golf course to that extent is really ludicrous.”

Martin stressed that the figures presented at the budget meeting were preliminary. She said they were based on conservative projections from the city's financial staff, though she acknowledged the numbers were variable in either direction.

She couldn’t identify a single reason as to why the course was faring worse than expected. The issues with the course’s infrastructure are daunting, Martin said. When it rains, the drainage is so poor that sometimes the course is closed for multiple days afterward.

The course was particularly hard hit in the wake of Hurricane Irma last year, which closed at least a portion of the course for two weeks.

That’s one reason why the number of rounds played at the course continues to decrease. In other cases, Martin said, golfers are looking elsewhere, opting to play at better-maintained facilities.

Whatever the factors may be, the decline is stark. Through the end of February in 2015-16, there had been 46,794 rounds of golf played at Bobby Jones. Through the same point in 2017-18, there have been 35,723 rounds played.

This, Martin argues, underscores the need for significant improvements.

“Until we fix the infrastructure out there, we’re not as competitive as we could be in the market for golf,” Martin said. “If you’re not competitive, you’re not going to attract the golfers. It all hinges on the rounds of golf.”

The city has spent an extended period of time considering what improvements it should make at Bobby Jones. In early 2015, a resident advisory committee began examining the needs of the golf facility. In early 2017, the city hired golf architect Richard Mandell to produce a master plan for renovating the course.

After receiving Mandell’s report in October, the commission directed staff to engage with the public about potential improvements and research possible funding mechanisms. Martin said staff hopes to present that information to the board in April or May.

Brody said he wants to see Bobby Jones remain public space — and for the city to continue to offer a municipal golf operation — but he thinks the city should consider all its options as it searches for a way to reverse the financial status of the facility. That includes potentially reducing the number of holes and re-examining the management structure.

“It’s clear something has to change,” Brody said. “I’m not prepared to continue having Bobby Jones absorb that amount of taxpayer dollars.”

He suggested the course should be looking for a way to at least break even. Martin agreed, and said beyond selling the facility, staff was not ruling out any possibilities as it prepared to present options to the commission for consideration.

“Pretty much everything’s on the table,” Martin said.

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