Will $16.7 in improvements improve the fortunes of the municipal golf course? Can the city afford the changes?
Like most members of the public who spoke at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting about potential renovations to Bobby Jones Golf Club, Steve Matthews is a golfer.
Like most of those speakers, Matthews recalled a time when the 45-hole municipal course was a great place to play golf. As recently as 2007, golfers played more than 140,000 rounds at Bobby Jones.
But he’s seen a striking decline in the quality of the facility over the past decade. As city leaders opted not to make major infrastructure investments at Bobby Jones, the drainage and irrigation systems began to show their age, leading to patchy fairways, shoddy greens and regular closures due to flooding. The number of players each year dropped. In 2018, golfers played 66,698 rounds at the course.
Still, like most of those speakers, Matthews thinks there’s hope for Bobby Jones to return to its glory days. He encouraged the city to pursue an ambitious plan for improving all 45 holes at the course, certain golfers would come flocking back if the facility was once again in good condition.
“I think you have an obligation to save it,” Matthews said.
The majority of the City Commission shared Matthews’ optimism. On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 to pursue a 45-hole renovation plan estimated to cost $16.7 million.
In addition to repairing the drainage and irrigation beneath the course, the plans include the construction of new hole designs, a player development center and a new clubhouse.
Commissioners expressed confidence the improvements would allow Bobby Jones to return to self-sustainability after an extended period of financial struggle. In nine of the past 10 years, the golf course has posted a loss, depleting nearly $2 million in reserves since 2009. In the most recent budget, the course received a $650,000 subsidy from the city’s general fund.
But as the city prepares for the first significant investment in Bobby Jones’ infrastructure in decades, some officials were less certain the course would generate enough revenue to cover both operating costs and the expenses associated with improvements.
Although the commission previously expressed a desire to renovate all 45 holes, city staff also presented an alternate plan Tuesday that would have reduced the course to 27 regulation holes and a nine-hole training center.
City Manager Tom Barwin said staff developed that option, priced between $11.9 million and $15.2 million, to make the commission aware of the financial challenges and uncertainty Bobby Jones faces. In a memo, Barwin warned that circumstances beyond the city’s control could limit increases in revenue at Bobby Jones. If the new levels of revenue are insufficient, Barwin said it’s plausible the golf course could continue to demand a general fund subsidy.
Barwin said the 27-hole option would have been a more fiscally conservative approach tailored to the recent levels of play at Bobby Jones, rather than historic activity.
“Now that we have reliable cost information, the decision becomes what level of financial risk is the city willing to take, if any, to continue to own and operate a municipal golf course,” Barwin wrote in the memo ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
City Commissioner Hagen Brody, the dissenting vote Tuesday, was even more critical of the financial components of the proposed renovations. He said he saw no evidence Bobby Jones would be able to produce the number of rounds necessary to pay for the renovations and future maintenance expenses.
The cost of financing a $16.7 million improvement project would be $2 million annually over a 10-year period, or $1.5 million annually over a 15-year period, according to city staff. Over the past five years, operating expenses at Bobby Jones have averaged $2.7 million annually.
Brody questioned how the city could expect to cover up to $5 million in annual expenses at Bobby Jones without needing to increase taxes or cut services elsewhere. He cited the course’s revenue from 2007, when there were 143,000 rounds played at Bobby Jones. That year, the facility generated $3.4 million.
“Contrary to what our city staff is telling us in the meeting and behind closed doors, what finance is telling us in the meeting and behind closed doors, we just chose to take the grand Cadillac package with no reasonable way to pay for it,” Brody said following the meeting.
Consultant Richard Mandell, who produced the Bobby Jones master plan proposal for the city, said there’s reason to believe the revenue can increase beyond the 2007 levels. Although the number of golfers at Bobby Jones has significantly declined during the past two decades, the popularity of golf in Florida has not. As a result, he believes golfers only left Bobby Jones because the course fell into disrepair.
After the improvements are made, Mandell said the city could charge a higher average price per round and still expect a significant increase in rounds played at the course.
To cover $5 million in annual expenses, the city would need to have 100,000 rounds played at Bobby Jones at an average price of $50 per round each year. In 2017, the average price was $23.
Even considering the substandard state of the course, Mandell said that price was too low. He said the city could create a tiered pricing structure to ensure the facility remains affordable for residents, but he emphasized the historic price points at Bobby Jones have been below market rates.
“You’ve been giving rounds away for years,” Mandell said.
Mandell acknowledged Bobby Jones has more competitors in the golf course market today than it did in the 1990s or 2000s. Still, he expressed confidence that Bobby Jones had attributes that would make it more appealing than the alternatives to dedicated golfers, including its size and location.
“It’s more playable for the average golfer, and you can create strategy to appeal to the more highly skilled golfer,” he said.
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie decided to support the proposed improvements when she examined the history of the course.
Prior to the late-00s recession, Bobby Jones regularly turned a profit. In 2007, revenue exceeded expenditures by nearly $642,000. Reports the city has received from golf professionals have stated Bobby Jones could significantly increase its revenue if money is invested back into the course.
Eddie said she believes it’s reasonable for the city to make up for an extended period of neglect that aligns with the decline of activity at Bobby Jones. She saw the price difference between the 27-hole and 45-hole renovation options as less significant than the potential for increased revenue if the city maintains the current size of the facility.
Although two critical speakers questioned whether the city should be managing a golf course at all, Eddie said Bobby Jones is an important pubic amenity. The 287-acre property represents about half of the city’s total parkland. As a result, she believes the commission has a responsibility to ensure it is maintained at an acceptable level.
“Our golf course is a public golf course so that residents can have a place to play,” Eddie said.
Staff reported city residents represented 9% of the rounds played at Bobby Jones last year — about 6,000 rounds in total. Still, Eddie was optimistic the renovated course would provide a quality, reasonably priced opportunity for all city residents to play golf, including younger and working-class demographics.
Brody thought the city could continue to provide an affordable golf option and maintain the entirety of the property as public open space while still scaling down the footprint of the course itself.
He criticized the rest of the commission for not focusing more on where improvements to a golf course fall into the hierarchy of priorities for the city.
“Put this out in the public and say, ‘If we had $17 million dropped on our doorstep tomorrow, what should we spend it on?’” Brody said. “I guarantee golf would not be near the top of our choices.”
But, as the commission directed staff to develop more detailed financing options in produce of a finalized improvement plan, Brody remained the lone skeptic on the board about investing significant resources to lure golfers back to the course.
“The reason they are not playing is because of the condition,” Eddie said.