Ahead of a planned multimillion-dollar golf course renovation, city administration has considered permanently designating the 300-acre property as open space.
Next month, city officials will discuss the option of partnering with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to preserve the site of Bobby Jones Golf Club as open space in perpetuity.
In a release, the city announced it was exploring the possibility of creating a permanent conservation easement on the property, which the Conservation Foundation would control. Such a designation would dictate that the 300-acre property be used only for golf, recreation and as natural lands, the release said.
Conservation Foundation President Christine Johnson called a potential partnership the opportunity to create certainty the land would remain open space — and allow the city to imagine the possibilities to enhance the site’s natural assets.
“Cities that are vibrant and are places where people want to live, work and play have well designed and thought-out open space,” Johnson said.
City staff will provide an update to the commission on the conservation discussions at a special meeting Tuesday, July 9.
In addition to prohibiting the sale and development of the land, officials believe the conservation partnership could also help the fiscal sustainability of the golf course property moving forward, City Manager Tom Barwin said in a statement. Last year, the City Commission endorsed a renovation plan for the 45-hole municipal course estimated to cost $16.7 million.
Although the majority of the commission expressed optimism the financially troubled course could become profitable following an enhancement project, a May report cast doubt on that outcome. A draft business plan, written by National Golf Foundation Consulting, projected a renovated Bobby Jones would continue to lose more than $800,000 annually in operating expenses from 2024 to 2028.
“This is primarily due to the large debt service estimate and the rareness of public golf courses producing much higher than $1.0 million in net operating income, even after a full-scale renovation as is proposed in Sarasota,” the document stated.
Johnson said there were multiple ways the partnership could help the fiscal outlook of the property. She said enshrining the land as open space could lead to the establishment of more recreational opportunities, which could draw more users and improve the odds of raising the funds necessary to manage the site. She also suggested the city could consider reducing the number of golf holes on the site, though the City Commission has previously rejected that possibility.
The city’s release said that under a conservation agreement, “the property would be endowed with adequate funding so that it can be maintained for decades to come,” but it did not provide additional details on how the designation might affect the financial management of the land.
City spokesman Jason Bartolone said a conservation easement would not preclude the city pursuing the 45-hole renovation the commission endorsed.