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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 11, 2019 2 months ago

City undecided on Bobby Jones plans

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Facing the prospect of annual expenses exceeding $1.5 million, officials are considering options for renovating the municipal golf course.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

If officials proceed with plans to renovate all 45 holes at Bobby Jones Golf Club, the city could be paying between $800,000 and $1.57 million annually to fund the municipal course over more than a decade, according to a consultant’s report.

Late last year, a majority of the City Commission expressed enthusiasm about investing an estimated $17.5 million into the city-owned facility, optimistic it could restore the financially troubled course to profitability — or at least to a place of greater fiscal stability.

The city hasn’t done anything to officially move away from that plan in the wake of the report, produced by the National Golf Foundation. But on Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously to gather more information on alternative options that would reconfigure the property to 27 or 18 holes instead.

The commission also unanimously directed city administration to schedule a presentation from the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which has expressed interest in establishing a conservation easement on the property that would guarantee the land remain public open space in perpetuity.

City Manager Tom Barwin, who expressed fear about the city’s financial obligations if it pursued the 45-hole renovation, said the conservation partnership presented an opportunity to help offset some of the costs associated with the property. Barwin said staff was concerned about funding annual debt payments if the city took out up to $20 million in bonds to fund the project.

“What do you do if you get hammered by a severe storm and hurricane and the course is out of commission for a while, or if there’s still a severe recession?” Barwin said. “We’re still on the hook for those principal and interest payments no matter what.”

Under a conservancy agreement, the Conservation Foundation would assume control of the property in exchange for a financial contribution to the city Barwin said could total “multiple millions of dollars.” The city would retain ownership of the property, but it could not be used for any purpose other than open space and light recreation.

Barwin said the conservancy agreement could still go into effect if the city pursued the 45-hole renovation. He also suggested it could provide an opportunity for the city to downsize the footprint of the golf course and offer other recreation opportunities on the land.

“We could set aside a portion of what is raised for the future management and evolution of whatever acreage is not used for golf,” Barwin said.

The commission’s vote came after a presentation from consultant Richard Singer, director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation. Singer wrote a business plan analyzing and projecting the future operations of the facility if the city pursues its desired renovations. If it undertakes the 45-hole project, the city estimates it would close the course in April 2020 and reopen in October 2021.

Singer’s report said the city could double the current annual revenue at Bobby Jones by fiscal year 2025, with that revenue covering the expenses associated with operating the facility. But the revenue would not be sufficient to cover other costs, including annual debt service payments of $1.6 million and an average of more than $200,000 annually devoted to contingency and capital funds.

“That’s a big part of this review and a big part of this business plan the city of Sarasota should be prepared for,” Singer said.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody, the lone vote against the initial pursuit of the 45-hole renovation, said the report underscored his fears about the expense associated with a larger project.  

“We have new, credible information this is going to be a very bad business decision,” Brody said.

Although the rest of the commission voted to get an updated business plan based on 18-hole and 27-hole configurations, they did not share Brody’s staunch opposition to the 45-hole project. Mayor Liz Alpert said downsizing the course wouldn’t necessarily produce proportional savings for the city, a point Singer agreed with.

“Both sides are going to change drastically — the revenue and the expense side,” Singer said of a potential smaller project.

On Monday, July 15, the commission is scheduled to set a maximum amount for the bond issues associated with the Bobby Jones project. That amount could be reduced if the commission decides to change the scope of the renovations, city staff said.

Singer said producing new business plans could take around six weeks. Barwin said staff would work to schedule a presentation with Conservation Foundation leaders on a potential partnership relating to the 300-acre site.

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