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Signage at Bobby Jones GolfClub
Sarasota Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021 1 year ago

City keeps options open for Bobby Jones renovation

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Although some officials were concerned about ceding control and delaying construction, the board will attempt to find companies interested in operating the municipal course and funding improvements.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Could the city of Sarasota find a private company willing to pay for a $12 million renovation project at Bobby Jones Golf Club in exchange for the rights to operate the municipal facility?

How about a golf course operator interested in leasing and running the property after the city finishes funding the improvements itself? And if the city did find a willing partner, would it be the best course of action to hand over control of Bobby Jones or to keep the management of the course in-house?

These are some of the questions city commissioners raised Monday as they debated the best approach for renovating Bobby Jones and establishing a long-term management strategy when the facility reopens. The City Commission failed to reach a consensus on its preferred direction, instead agreeing to keep its options open as it explores potential public-private partnerships.

The commission voted 3-2 to issue an invitation to negotiate, an open-ended process that allows interested companies to submit their proposals for operating the golf course as long as they comply with conditions the city has identified. Although the city has been discussing improvements at Bobby Jones since 2014 to address the facility’s financial struggles, a majority of the board said it was willing to take the time to field outside proposals before beginning construction and finalizing a management structure.

“I just want to keep it simple,” Commissioner Kyle Battie said. “I say we put out the ITN, let it go out there, do what it’s gonna do and see what fish we pull, man.”

The commission has settled on a preferred design for the renovations, endorsing a plan that would downsize the golf complex from 36 holes of regulation plan and a nine-hole short course to an 18-hole regulation course and a nine-hole short course. The city intends to transform 130 acres of the 293-acre property into public parkland for nongolf uses, which will carry additional expenses beyond the $12 million projected for the golf course and clubhouse improvements.

The city intends to ask prospective private partners to adhere to that design and include a tiered pricing structure for the course that offers discounted rates for city residents. 

In January, as the city was preparing to solicit bids from construction firms to begin the renovation project, Commissioner Erik Arroyo said he wanted to investigate opportunities for a private company to operate Bobby Jones and potentially fund any improvements. Last month, the commission held a workshop at which the board discussed private management options and heard testimony from golf management professionals who advocated for selecting an outside specialist to run the course.

Not all commissioners believe a private management company is the best option for the city. Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert voted against issuing the invitation to negotiate, arguing the city could effectively manage the municipal facility itself and retain greater control over the Bobby Jones property. Ahearn-Koch noted the city had considered private partnerships earlier in the planning process and opted not to go in that direction. 

Both Ahearn-Koch and Alpert were concerned about pushing back the start of the renovation project, with city staff suggesting negotiations with an outside company could take six months to more than a year before any agreement is finalized. Bobby Jones has been closed for golf since March 2020, though it remains open as a trail facility. In addition to issuing the invitation to negotiate, the commission agreed to authorize staff to proceed with soliciting bids for construction, should the city ultimately decide to undertake the renovations on its own.

“I am not at all in favor of delaying this anymore,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s been four, five years that I’ve been involved in this exhaustive conversation that has been massively inclusive of the entire community.”

Arroyo and Commissioner Hagen Brody expressed their preference for a private operator, and they hoped an outside company may also be willing to invest some money into the improvements to secure the rights to run the course.

Brody said the commission began to discuss renovations at Bobby Jones because the course required hundreds of thousands of dollars in general fund subsidies, and a consultant projected the course would continue to run a deficit post-renovation while the city paid down the debt from construction. Brody and Arroyo said the use of a private operator could mitigate some financial risk associated with the golf course operations.

Brody said he wasn’t certain what responses the invitation to negotiate would look like, but he argued the city should fully investigate its options before moving forward.

“It’s better to be careful, methodical, to try to make the right decision here even though it may take a couple more months, six months to see what we have,” Brody said.

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