City commissioners were split on their preferred plan for adding a public park to Bobby Jones Golf Club, leaving open the option of further reducing the golf course footprint.
When it comes to redeveloping the city-owned Bobby Jones Golf Club, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch wants the city to pick a plan and stick with it.
The city has been discussing the concept of renovating Bobby Jones since 2014, a reaction to the municipal course running a deficit and relying on subsidies from the city’s general fund after depleting its reserves. The City Commission settled on a preferred renovation plan in in 2018, voting to refurbish all 45 holes at the 293-acre facility.
Then, in September 2019, the commission revised its vision, voting to reduce the size of the golf course to 36 holes while adding nearly 50 acres of public parkland to the property. On Monday, the commission held a workshop to discuss three different options a consultant developed for incorporating that park space into the layout of the site.
One of those proposals proposed further reducing the size of the course to 18 regulation holes and a 9-hole short course. That drew pushback from Ahearn-Koch, who questioned the inclusion of the proposal and said it was not what the board asked staff to produce.
“We voted for 36 holes and a park, and I think we need to move forward with that vote,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Despite Ahearn-Koch’s concerns, however, two commissioners expressed their support for the 27-hole configuration at Monday’s workshop. Although the commission could not take any action at the workshop, the discussion left open the possibility the city would once again adjust its plans for renovating Bobby Jones. With a final decision still forthcoming, city administration is recommending adopting the plan that deemphasizes golf in favor of additional open space and other recreational features.
“I think we have the ultimate win-win here to right-size golf and take a tremendous leap forward in the environmental realm — and provide new amenities to our residents,” City Manager Tom Barwin said.
Surveying the courses
All three redesign options would require the city to dedicate more than $1 million to Bobby Jones on an annual basis, according to projections shared at Monday’s workshop.
The three proposals carried annual operating costs projected between $1.37 million and $1.49 million. The estimates put the 27-hole configuration as the second most expensive option, an annual cost of $1.41 million.
All three plans would cost between $22.1 and $24.7 million to fully construct, with the 27-hole course as the least expensive in the city's estimates. The consultant team recommended taking out loans or bonds to fund the project and said the city could phase in the park construction as resources become available.
Chris Cianfaglione, a design consultant with Kimley-Horn, outlined the three park proposals his team developed in a presentation to the commission. The first 36-hole option divides 92 acres of parkland into two areas the course bisects — a more traditional community park on the west end of the site and natural features on the east side. The second 36-hole option places all the park amenities into 91 acres on the east side of the site.
Option three, the 27-hole configuration, increases the park footprint to 130 acres and places more emphasis on natural features such as created wetlands and pine uplands. All three options include trail connections and some recreational amenities such as a disc golf course, a playground and lawn bowling space.
Cianfaglione and other officials at Monday’s workshop suggested option three was most likely to attract outside funding because of the decreased emphasis on golf. The city is discussing a partnership with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to designate the Bobby Jones site as public parkland in perpetuity. Conservation Foundation President Christine Johnson said both philanthropic donors and granting agencies would be more interested in supporting a project that appears to have a broader community impact than just improving a golf course.
Richard Mandell, the golf architect responsible for redesigning the courses at Bobby Jones, suggested the other options are also intended to prioritize community benefits such as stormwater quality improvements.
“In my mind, it’s all water related,” Mandell said
To help guide the production of the three proposals, the consultant conducted an online survey regarding the future of Bobby Jones. The results varied depending on whether the respondent golfed at Bobby Jones. Among 258 frequent Bobby Jones golfers, more than 80% thought the redesigned course should prioritize golf. Among 488 non-golfers, fewer than 3% thought golf should be the priority; more than 80% of those respondents said the city should emphasize trails, park space and stormwater quality improvements.
In total, 37.8% of respondents asked the city to prioritize golf. That’s a plurality, but one outnumbered by the 48.7% of respondents who wanted to prioritize trails, parkland and stormwater improvements.
Despite those survey results, Ahearn-Koch reiterated her belief the city should move forward with a plan for Bobby Jones that maximized the golf footprint while remaining fiscally prudent.
“I feel there’s a strong desire in this community — there was for 45 holes,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I felt the 36 was a compromise.”
Commissioners Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody, however, offered a positive assessment of the 27-hole alternative. Both commissioners said they believed a smaller golf course with additional park amenities would allow the city to better serve the community at Bobby Jones.
“It’s really the difference between golf being an amenity of the larger park, or the park becoming an amenity of the course,” Brody said. “I think when you look at alternate three, the golf is an amenity of this great park, and I think that is easier philosophically to justify a subsidy of our tax dollars at the amount we’re going to have to do.”
Alpert defended the prospect of the city once again adjusting its preference for how to redevelop the golf course site.
“With decisions that are monumental like this one, I don’t think it hurts to take all input and take our time and make sure we’re making the right decision,” Alpert said.
At the same time, a majority of the board hoped the commission could settle on a plan quickly — and let that action stand as final.
“I want to get this scheduled on an agenda item as soon as possible so we can make a decision,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said.