When the years-long redevelopment plans of the Bobby Jones Golf Course were finally approved by Sarasota City Commission in February, the ambitious goal was to have restoration of the original 18 holes designed by Donald Ross open to play by November of this year.
Nature had other plans, and a bureaucratic snafu that resulted in a two-month delay opened a cascade of circumstances that have now pushed the opening date to late summer or early fall 2023.
On Monday, golf course architect Richard Mandell, whom the city hired in 2017 to design the restoration of the city facility that was closed in 2020, told city commissioners during a project update that all the difficult work has been completed and, barring a catastrophic disaster, he sees no delays going forward.
The best news, he added, is that the project so far is coming in at more than $250,000 under the $12.5 million budget, thanks to some creative value engineering. The budget for the entire project including the golf course, nature park and wetlands conservation is $18.8 million.
First the reasons for the delay.
“We were hoping that we could start right away and we would get done in November, but that was really only in a situation where everything was good to go,” Mandell said. “That hasn't been the case since we had SWIFTMUD (Southwest Florida Water Management District) slow us down with permitting. The permit was finalized and approved by them, but it sat on someone's desk for six to eight weeks and we had to call to find out why that was the case.”
No good reason, as it turned out, but those critical two months prevented earth moving from beginning well in advance of the wet season. When the rains did begin, construction was as much about moving water around what is otherwise a floodplain as it was about building a golf course.
Then came Hurricane Ian. Then Tropical Storm Nicole.
Finally dry again, contractor QGS Development of Plant City has been progressing at an accelerated pace as grass planting has begun on the back nine, those holes visible from 17th Street.
“Now that the rainy season has gone, QGS has picked up progress and we're doing very well,” Mandell said.
Challenges brought by the aftermath of the COVID-19 response, he told commissioners, required unanticipated value engineering, which so far has resulted in $253,000 in savings from the original budget.
“We've had major challenges that none of us foresaw, such as the pandemic, which basically added 25% to 30% of cost to the golf course. And despite that we're able to still overcome that by being smart with what we're doing value-engineering wise,” Mandell said.
Among those was the elimination of concrete cart paths in favor of shell paving, which not only is significantly less costly than concrete — both to build and to maintain — but also results in even greater impervious surface, which reduces stormwater runoff. It is made of compacted pulverized sea shells.
Not only is it cheaper, Mandell just likes it better.
“I was never really a fan of concrete cart paths. I always wanted shell screening for the car paths,” he said. “The cost of concrete went up and shell screening did not go up nearly as much, and we were to save a good $500,000 to $600,000 just on that move alone. And when you talk about Sarasota and Florida golf … we really sort of capture that old Florida feel.”
Some of that savings went into bunker liners, which were not originally planned, that will preserve the longevity and integrity of the sand bunkers. Mandell said he also found savings during irrigation installation — which is now fully operational — by identifying areas where fewer sprinkler heads covering larger areas could be used.
But don’t tuck that $253,000 in the savings account just yet, he warned. It could easily be absorbed by other unforeseen circumstances.
The golf course renovation is only part of the overall 261-acre project. Reducing the course to the original 1926 Donald Ross 18-hole layout from the 36 holes it became in the decades since left 153 acres to create the nature park and wetlands conservation area. Many of the existing cart paths there will be re-used for the nature trail, which will one day connect with Sarasota County’s expanded regional park off 17th street adjacent to the site off 17th street, which is under development, and ideally eventually connect to Nathan Benderson Park.
The nature park will be accessible once the golf course opens, but full development of it, Director of Parks and Recreation Jerry Fogle told commissioners, is still years away.
“From day one in 2017, we've talked about the synergy between golf and nature, and we'd always planned to expand the wetlands and work on flood control for the city with the site. This is a perfect example again of how it works together,” Mandell said. “The dirt we're removing to create the wetlands is being is being transferred to the golf course to build up the fairways to get it out of the floodplain. The five holes along Fruitville Road mostly have always been under the 25-year floodplain, so there's no surprise as to why the golf course would flood.
“Now we've got those fairways and tees and greens above the flood elevations, so when regular floods happen, the golf course won't be down for four or five days.”
Earth moving is also now underway on the par-three “adjustable” golf course across Circus Boulevard from the main course. Mandell told commissioners he expects that to open mid too late next year as well.
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.