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City ponders private management for Bobby Jones

After a four-hour workshop Monday, it’s still unclear what direction the city will pursue as it plots a renovation project for the municipal golf course.

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  • | 3:01 p.m. February 9, 2021
City Manager Marlon Brown said the city was getting ready to find a contractor for the Bobby Jones renovation project until the commission expressed an interest in reconsidering its options.
City Manager Marlon Brown said the city was getting ready to find a contractor for the Bobby Jones renovation project until the commission expressed an interest in reconsidering its options.
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The city has spent more than six years crafting a plan for the future of Bobby Jones Golf Club, but as it nears the point of selecting a contractor to renovate the city-owned course, officials remain undecided about key details associated with the project.

The City Commission held a workshop Monday to review the status of the Bobby Jones renovation efforts — and consider the possibility of diverging from the vision the board adopted one year ago. The commission scheduled the workshop following a January presentation from Commissioner Erik Arroyo, who advocated for a possible partnership with a private property manager that would lease and operate the municipal golf course.

Monday’s workshop concluded with no specific action. A majority of the board indicated it was willing to consider bringing in an outside operator for Bobby Jones, but some commissioners said they were not ready to fully commit to the idea. Commissioners who supported a private partnership suggested it could minimize the city’s costs associated with the golf course, but others had questions about how such an arrangement would work in practice.

“I don’t feel like I have enough information — or that I’m convinced a management company could make it profitable if the city can’t,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said. 

The workshop began with a presentation from city staff and the consultants who helped develop the city’s plans for renovating the 293-acre Bobby Jones property. The city intends to reduce the footprint of the golf course from 45 holes to 27, including 18 regulation holes and a nine-hole short course. The project would include 130 acres of newly created nongolf parkland on the east side of the Bobby Jones site.

Although the city initially estimated the first phase of the golf and park improvements would cost $21.4 million, golf architect Richard Mandell said the project team now projects the costs at $10.6 million, $1.5 million of which would go toward the park. Phase one of the park has been pared back to include 4.5 miles of walking trails, a created wetlands system and landscaping. The city has already committed $1.4 million toward design, permitting and pre-construction work for the project.

Speakers from the project team noted the city has been working since 2014 to develop plans for renovating Bobby Jones after the course depleted its reserves and began requiring subsidies from the general fund to cover operating expenses. Mandell and others said the current plan is the product of extensive input from the public and the commission. 

“We’ve been consistently working with everyone involved in this to get to the point where we are right now,” Mandell said.

Arroyo facilitated a presentation from representatives for Century Golf Partners and Golfzon Leadbetter, industry professionals who offered their insights on Bobby Jones and golf course operations. The group said it believed projections from the National Golf Foundation — which indicated Bobby Jones could continue to lose more than $500,000 annually following renovations — were overly conservative, and that the course offered opportunities to maximize revenue and minimize general fund subsidies.

The group outlined a similar vision to the one the city has already adopted for the property, primarily focused on golf but with a portion set aside for other recreational activity. A concept plan the group shared included an 18-hole regulation course and nine-hole short course.

When commissioners asked how a private operator could more effectively generate revenue at Bobby Jones than the city could on its own, the group pointed to price structure, marketing, maintenance and design efficiency as areas in which the current plan could be improved.

“Running a golf course is a specialized business,” said Jim Hinckley, founder and CEO of Century Golf. 

The presentations sparked a spectrum of responses from the commission. Arroyo continued to express optimism about the possibility of finding a private operator willing to cover the costs associated with renovating the Bobby Jones property, substantially reducing the city’s expenses. Mayor Hagen Brody was skeptical about the idea that a private company would invest millions of dollars into the site without city assistance, but he felt the city should not take on the management of a golf course.

“We just cannot assume the city can do as good a job as professionals that spend careers doing that,” Brody said.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said she believed the city should not cede control of Bobby Jones to a private entity, stating that the golf course is an amenity the city provides to its residents. She said Bobby Jones has been profitable under city management in the past, and she was optimistic it could return to profitability post-renovations. Even if she didn’t, she said maintaining public management would ensure the course remained accessible to all residents.

“This is a municipal service,” Ahearn-Koch said. “That is our focus.”

Alpert and Commissioner Kyle Battie both said they were open to bringing in a private management company but not committed to the idea. Alpert expressed concern that looping in an operator could delay construction and reopening of Bobby Jones, which has been closed since March.

Battie questioned whether the city could bring in a private management company after completing the renovation project the board has already endorsed. David Leadbetter, owner of Golfzon Leadbetter, said he believed it would be optimal to bring in an operator as early as possible to provide input, especially given the scope of the project. 

If the commission is interested, City Manager Marlon Brown indicated the city could put out a request for proposals for an operator who is willing to use Mandell’s designs as the foundation for the future of Bobby Jones while leaving open the possibility for revisions. That process could also seek companies willing to cover renovation expenses, Brown said. The commission intends to revisit its discussion at a future meeting where the board can take action.

In response to Ahearn-Koch’s concerns, Leadbetter said he believed an agreement with a private operator didn’t preclude the possibility of keeping the course affordable and accessible for city residents.

“I don’t think designing it as a profit center and making it great for the local community are mutually exclusive,” Leadbetter said.

Battie, poised to be a potential swing vote when the city returns to this conversation, said he’d like to get more information on that dynamic before he makes up his mind on the best course of action.

“When you turn it over to a management company, do you lose control over what happens there?” Battie said.


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