Amid privatization talks, the committee tasked with mapping out a plan for the long-term viability of Bobby Jones is keeping all its options on the table.
Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell may not be an avid golfer, but that hasn’t stopped her from teeing off on the status quo at Bobby Jones Golf Course.
At a July 13 budget meeting, Atwell read a strongly worded message regarding the future of the city-owned golf course. The Bobby Jones Golf Club Study Committee, tasked with researching a path to better management for the course, plans to complete its research toward the end of the year, but Atwell wants to see more immediate results.
She also wants to be clear with her expectations for the course, which she thinks must earn a profit to justify its operation by the city.
“City taxpayers should not subsidize the golfing costs of a clientele, most of whom are not city residents, and where many local golf courses are available to non-members,” Atwell said.
For years, Bobby Jones has drawn criticism for its increased maintenance and capital costs and lack of corresponding rise in revenue. The commission officially formed the golf club study committee in February, assigning seven area residents with the task of researching the best practices for the municipal course, possibly in advance of a formal master planning process.
When budget talks began this summer, Atwell was frustrated with what she saw as unrealistic revenue projections for the course — and the lack of substantive progress from the study committee as the city made its financial plans for the next year. Atwell stressed that she is a big fan of the course and wants to see it succeed, but also wants to make sure it’s operating in the black, either on its own or by a partnership with another entity.
If, by the beginning of 2016, the city has developed no clear plan for the future of Bobby Jones, Atwell suggested a private vendor could be the best option for managing the operations of the club.
“I want the advisory committee to come up with some very creative, responsible decisions that are not on the backs of the taxpayers,” Atwell said.
In addition to the missive from Atwell, the board has been working without its original chairman following John Bondur’s resignation in April. Still, the group is confident that it’s proceeding in the right direction, and plans to consider all options available.
Clarence Rogers, the new chairman of the committee, said it was too early to comment on Atwell’s comments regarding the best management structure for the course. Still, in the five months the committee has been operational, the group has heard first-hand accounts that municipal courses can still run efficiently.
“We've certainly received information from folks who have testified from other venues that it certainly is and has been the case in other places,” Rogers said. “We know it can be done.”
In addition to the capital and infrastructure improvements the course has needed for years, Bobby Jones is also suffering from an increased amount of competition from other local courses. With some public courses offering lower rates than the municipal club — and well-equipped private courses opening up their facilities to the public to generate more revenue — Bobby Jones needs to create its own niche in the market.
"The business of golf these days is very tough. You have to consider all aspects of competition." — Clarence Rogers
“The business of golf these days is very tough,” Rogers said. “You have to consider all aspects of competition. That's reflected in the pricing and the amenities and so on.”
At the golf club study committee’s July 23 meeting, the board began a dialogue with one potential partner to help reshape the future of Bobby Jones: Visit Sarasota County. Virginia Haley, the tourism group’s president, agreed that despite the popularity of recreational golf in the region, the municipal course needed to first develop its own distinct identify before tourism funding and marketing could enter the equation.
“I think you have to create that unique proposition,” Haley said.