Golfing may be the least essential of all government services. Of all the entertainment venues that local governments own or subsidize — from the Van Wezel to tennis courts to baseball — surely golf must rank near the bottom in order of importance.
Indeed, it is a mystery why the city of Sarasota would even be in the golf business.
Why must taxpayers fund a golf course when there are dozens of privately owned golf courses, many of them welcoming the public to play at varying prices? There is just no need for a publicly owned and operated golf course in Sarasota.
Yet, in the midst of a difficult stretch of cutbacks in the city, the Bobby Jones Golf Course stands untouched, unreviewed. It may break even this year. It has needed tax subsidies in the past.
But the question of its existence, costs and efficiencies seem to be on no one’s radar. It is 325 acres in the middle of the city, and no one is asking if this is the best use of that property. No one is asking why taxpayers are subsidizing a few golfers and making it more difficult for private-sector golf courses, which pay taxes and create private-sector jobs.
Overall, government only has two roles: to protect the public from violence (i.e. robbers, murderers and foreign invaders) and, as James Madison articulated in the Federalist papers, to serve as a referee in disputes between individuals and groups (i.e. the courts). Bobby Jones fits nowhere in this scheme.
The City Commission, taking a fresh look at many ways Sarasota has always done business — ways that have not always worked well at all — should consider three questions regarding Bobby Jones:
1) Is this the right use of the 325 acres in Sarasota, along Fruitville Road, the gateway to the city and the city core? Or, is there a higher and better use of the property that is not golfing?
Such questions should not be answered before getting two necessary numbers: What is the land worth if it were to be sold without requirements that it be kept as a golf course? How much in taxes would that generate? Then a fully informed decision can be made, not just an emotional one.
2) Is this the right use but the wrong ownership? Perhaps a golf course on the gateway is what the city wants. But if so, should the city be owning it and keeping it off the tax rolls?
3) If it remains publicly owned, should the city manage the golf course? Manatee County just approved Sarasota-based Pope Golf to operate and maintain the public Manatee County and Buffalo Creek golf courses. Pope also operates the Sarasota Golf Club and Bent Tree Country Club.
Pope will pay Manatee $2.7 million for leasing and invest $1.4 million to improve the courses during the five-year agreement.
Pope has a history of improving golf courses it manages and keeping fees about the same. It does so because it is a private company not constrained by government worker unions and benefits.
This is becoming a common switch. In a recent six-month period, 175 municipal golf courses sent out requests for proposals for private companies to manage their courses.
This final option is the least the City Commission ought to consider.
Bobby Jones should not go on as an island of immunity against the tide of history. Privatize Bobby Jones.