One of Richard Mandell’s major takeaways after four public workshops about the future of Bobby Jones Golf Club: Sarasota residents still believe the course can succeed.
“I feel like everyone’s pretty supportive of our efforts,” said Mandell, a golf architect working with the city on plans to renovate the municipal golf course. “They recognize something needs to be done — on a large scale, not just Band-Aids.”
On June 13 and 14, the city held a series of meetings designed to gather community feedback as officials debate the best path forward for Bobby Jones. In 2017, Mandell wrote a report stating the 45-hole complex needed more than $20 million in comprehensive renovations.
Following the production of the report, the city has demurred on how much it should actually invest in the golf course.
The course hasn’t turned a profit in the past five years. It needed a $425,000 subsidy in the previous budget and is projected to need a $600,000 subsidy in 2018-19. Concerned about the financial state of Bobby Jones, the City Commission wanted to hear what residents envisioned as an appropriate renovation plan.
Based on the input at the final workshop, those who chose to attend the meeting were enthusiastic about investing significant money into the course. Golfers said they would use the course more if it were improved. They believed the larger golf community felt the same way.
“Nobody wants to go play because of the condition,” said Steve Matthews, a golfer who spoke at the June 14 workshop. “I’m totally in support of spending this money to go fix it, because it’s a gem we as a city and a county should be really proud of.”
Matthews said he would be happy to pay $40 or $50 to play at Bobby Jones if it was in good shape, potentially double the existing fees. Other golfers shared the same sentiment, Mandell said, which could radically change the financial equations for the course.
Mandell suggested a tiered-fee system could generate additional revenue. The commission expressed a desire to keep Bobby Jones affordable for residents, so Mandell said the course could charge its lowest rates for city residents. But after examining other local golf course rates, Mandell said the city could potentially charge tourists more than $100 to play a round and still draw them.
“That’s a game-changer, from a revenue standpoint,” Mandell said.
Some golfers suggested a gradual approach to renovating the course — perhaps an initial smaller investment designed to improve 18 holes before proceeding to improve the rest of the course and clubhouse.
Other attendees suggested the county should be responsible for contributing funds to Bobby Jones, arguing the course is a regional amenity.
“The city is a part of the county,” resident and golfer Bill Coughlin said. “The county should share the costs.”
Mandell said that, because he was hired by the city and the city owns the course, he does not plan to broach that subject as part of a conversation about renovating the course.
At a May meeting, city commissioners made clear they hoped the workshops would include more than just the golf community. Mandell estimated that 40% of the attendees were nongolfers. He believed that group was largely of the opinion that Bobby Jones is an open-space asset that needs to be maintained.
“We did not hear from any nongolfers saying, ‘Tear it up and build condos,’” Mandell said. “I think they understand the benefits of that beyond just the golf itself.”
Mandell intends to return to the commission later this summer with more detailed financing options for a potential final decision on Bobby Jones renovations.
Despite the financial challenges the course is facing, Mandell said he thinks the general consensus is that Bobby Jones can turn its situation around with the proper investment.
“A majority of people want to preserve all 45 golf holes,” Mandell said.