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Sarasota Tuesday, Jul. 21, 2020 7 months ago

City staff turns away Bobby Jones lease offer

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A proposal from a private group interested in operating Bobby Jones Golf Club did not make it to the City Commission for review.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

On June 29, City Manager Tom Barwin received an unsolicited letter from a private group interested in operating the city-owned Bobby Jones Golf Club.

Earlier this year, the City Commission approved a plan for renovating the Bobby Jones property to reduce the golf course footprint and add public park land. Still, the outside group was optimistic about the prospect of restoring the profitability of golf operations at Bobby Jones under the existing configuration of 36 holes plus a nine-hole short course, offering up to $2 million to lease the facility for up to 20 years. The group included a $100,000 check with the letter as a show of good faith.

On July 16, Barwin sent a response letter rejecting the group’s proposal if it sought to operate Bobby Jones in its current condition. Barwin said the city was “obligated to proceed on its present course” for renovating the property because it had already approved funds for the design. Barwin also noted a long-term proposal for operating the course would have to follow state procurement laws, likely requiring a formal request for proposals from the city. The proposal was not brought to the City Commission for consideration at a public meeting.

Barwin’s response was guided by a July 8 email from City Attorney Robert Fournier, who said he said he believed the city was “past the point of no return“ regarding the future of Bobby Jones. Fournier cited the commission’s vote in February 2019 to approve a contract with golf architect Richard Mandell for $1.05 million to redesign Bobby Jones. In May, the commission approved an amendment to that contract to reflect the new 27-hole course layout the board selected in February.

Fournier said he did not recall a clause in Mandell’s contract allowing the city to back out of the agreement after receiving an unsolicited alternative offer. Barwin responded saying he agreed and would prepare a response to the lease proposal. The city produced the email correspondence and the offer letter Tuesday in response to a public records request from City Commission candidate Martin Hyde.

Fournier said his use of the phrase “past the point of no return” was in reference to a previous email from city Purchasing General Manager David Boswell, who used the same language while discussing the proposal.

“Since the commission has made its decision already, we may be past the point of no return,” Boswell wrote July 8, five minutes before Fournier’s response. “However, we have seen [things] change course before.”

Fournier said the intent of his message was not to completely rule out an alternate plan for the future of Bobby Jones, but to remind city officials there was already a finalized design contract in place. Fournier said the city needed to address its contractual obligations before delving into a serious consideration of another proposal for the golf course property.

“I was trying to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the contract here, so don’t assume we could discuss this,’” Fournier said.

Although he felt the prospect of picking another plan might be a longshot — and that making adjustments would require significant work — Fournier did not say the city’s commitments to Mandell require the full implementation of the commission’s selected design.

In an email, Barwin said the letter was one of a number of unsolicited offers the city has received from groups interested in leasing or operating the Bobby Jones property. He reaffirmed that the city would be moving forward with the selected renovation plan and that further exploration of an outside management group would not be feasible until the project was further along.

Barwin also suggested the interest from outside groups was a good sign regarding the future of Bobby Jones — and reason for the city to take a thorough approach to considering its options for the property. Barwin indicated that, at some point in the future, the city could seek proposals from groups interested in leasing or operating the renovated course. He said the group who sent the June letter would be notified if that occurs.

“With several firms being interested in running the BJGC, it appears the market forces reflect its potential profitability,” Barwin wrote. “Sarasota should be in position to share in a percentage of the positive cash flow. This is why a well thought-out process is essential for both transparency reasons and business reasons.”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said she agreed with staff’s approach and wanted to see the city follow through on its plans for Bobby Jones after lengthy public discussions about what to do with the property.

“This is what we've decided, and this is what we've voted on, and this is what the community's weighed in on,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Offer details

The group interested in operating the municipal course includes Christian Martin, golf professional and former assistant manager at Bobby Jones, and Jim Owen, whose career includes time as partner in the Serenoa Golf Club and membership director and golf professional at The Founders Club.

The letter outlines a simple proposal of terms: The group would pay $100,000 to the city for the first year of operations, and an agreement would include four five-year options to extend the lease at a rent of $100,000 each year. The letter framed the proposal as an opportunity for the city to avoid any losses associated with the operations of the facility, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in general fund subsidies since 2018.

In 2017, Mandell said Bobby Jones was in need of more than $20 million in renovations. As the city considered its options for overhauling the course, projections showed the city would struggle to restore the course to profitability after undertaking an improvement project. But Martin said his group viewed the course as a worthwhile investment and believed the facility’s financial struggles were attributable to mismanagement, not unfavorable economic conditions.

“We’re golf people,” Martin said. “We understand how the golf business works. The city doesn’t understand how the golf business works.”

Martin was disappointed the city rejected the group’s offer without informing the commission.

“Someone’s head should roll on that one,” Martin said. “That should have gone straight to the commissioners.”

City Commissioners Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody declined to comment on the offer, stating they had not seen the group’s letter. Other commissioners did not immediately return a request for comment.

The city closed Bobby Jones in March and intends to keep the course closed until renovations begin in 2021. The city has estimated the cost of the renovation effort at $21.4 million. In May, multiple commissioners expressed a desire to keep plans for the course flexible because of uncertain economic conditions associated with COVID-19.

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