18 holes would trace original route of golf course; nature park would occupy remainder of 261 acres.
This story has been updated.
Drivers, putters and periodic plaid pants could return to Bobby Jones Golf Club as early as November after a day of sweeping decisions this week that one city commissioner called “monumental."
In a daylong special meeting at City Hall on Monday, commissioners worked their way through a series of decisions that closed out years of discussion, proposals and counterproposals on what to do with the nearly century-old municipal golf course.
Central to the plan is using 108 acres of the 261-acre facility to halve the club’s 36 holes and create a public nature park, set aside “in perpetuity" as a preserve with a variety of green space uses. Wetlands on the property will serve to naturally filter storm runoff from sources miles away as it drains ultimately into Sarasota Bay.
Closed to golfers since the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopened in mid-2020 as a series of nature trails, Bobby Jones is in line for a restoration of its original 18 holes, designed nearly a century ago by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross, who designed some of the United States’ most iconic courses.
“Securing a conservation easement on 261 acres of urban green space is a historic legacy action,” Mayor Erik Arroyo said. “Future generations are guaranteed this beautiful natural area, that eventually will connect to the Legacy Trail, will permanently exist as parkland for residents and visitors to enjoy.”
Construction could start by Feb. 1 on the restored 18 holes, which golf course architect and city consultant Richard Mandell said would trace the path of holes 10-18 of the two courses known at Bobby Jones as the American and British sides, which is the track of Ross’ original design. A new nine-hole short course across Circus Boulevard is also planned, along with a practice facility. A new clubhouse will replace the one demolished in 2021.
While play could resume for the 2022-23 winter season on both new courses, the new clubhouse likely won’t be ready until 2024.
On Monday, city commissioners approved these measures:
- A $12.5 million contract with QGS Development to build the golf facilities and perform work toward the nature park’s wetlands restoration.
- A $544,000 contract with Jon F. Swift Inc. to design construction plans for a new clubhouse. Though an 12,000 square foot complex with two buildings (one to house golf carts) was specified, commissioners asked planners to consider options including a two story building with overlooking views of the nature park.
- Continue negotiations with Indigo Golf Partners toward a potential management agreement for the golf course.
- A bond not to exceed $20 million with which to pay for the project.
- A conservation easement for the entire 261 acre property with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to maintain the space as green “in perpetuity.” Details of that agreement still remain to be finalized.
- An agreement between the city and the foundation to jointly fund raise for additional amenities in the park, such as trails, bridges over canals or wetlands, shade features, picnic areas or other related items.
- Conveyance of 12 acres to Sarasota County for a “destination playground.”
"This is a monumental decision we're making here," Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said.
Nearly three dozen residents both in person and on Zoom spoke highly of the plans, especially the nature park and the easement proposal, some comparing it to ongoing work on the city's bayfront to build The Bay Park project. Others said the acreage would become "Sarasota's Central Park."
"This area is a remarkable gem," said Charles Kalmykow. "What I love best about it is its natural beauty. As we watch it rapidly disappear, we understand what a treasure Bobby Jones is."
Although the bond's upper limit is set at $20 million, the exact cost of the new 18 holes, the framework of the nature park, the short course, the clubhouse design and construction is expected to cost less.
Kelly Strickland, the city's director of financial administration, estimated the 20-year old interest payment on the bond would be about $3.8 million. Concerns about the ability of course to break even financially were raised, along with concerns about unexpected costs.
Following a remark by Commissioner Liz Alpert that "parks are generally not a profit center," Arroyo said he was more concerned about the profit and loss of the golf course itself and not the investment in the park
"My reservation is with the golf operation," Arroyo said. “I wish we were only restoring the park for 100% of the people and not just the golf course for the people who play golf.”
The city for years has looked for a way forward with the facility between Fruitville Road and 17th Street. As far back as 2015, the city has expressed a desire to reinvigorate Bobby Jones as both revenue and the number of rounds played at the course declined annually.
While Mandell said the new course would look much like the original, there will be differences. He said the original course had few trees and no real water features. Portions of the course also were below the 100-year flood plain, which will be corrected.
Since the course closed, grass and weeds have overtaken many of the course’s landmarks, filling in sand traps and reclaiming greens. Tee markers still stand on many holes, offering a glimpse of how things were. But in many cases, the granite slabs with carved information on hole yardages and hole nicknames are the only clues to the past.
William Sterling, a visitor from Michigan, explored the nature trails on a recent Saturday, while cyclists and runners took to the course’s paved cart paths. He said it was initially hard to imagine the property busy with golfers.
"It's a little hard to get your bearings, looking around for signs of the golf course," he said while standing on the first fairway of Bobby Jones' American course. "We were wondering where the tee box was, but once we figured that out, we could see the hole as it was."
Chatting in the parking lot alongside perhaps a dozen cars – about half with bicycle racks attached – Sterling said would like to retire to Sarasota one day and, once he had learned of the plans for the property, said he would keep abreast of developments.
“I'd really like to see what it looks like again," he said. "I'm looking forward."
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