St. Johns County Commission to weigh options for county-owned golf course

Discussion on the future of the St. Johns Golf Club is set to tee off Tuesday when commissioners will hear a report on what can be done with the county-owned facility.

 

The golf course, a frequent target of scrutiny and criticism during budget season, has had its ups and downs over the years, prompting the county to explore its options for getting financially back on the fairway.

In November 2015, commissioners entered into a five-year, three-phase contract with Ponte Vedra Beach-based Larsen Golf to develop a master plan and provide architectural design services.

In the consultant’s bid for the project, Erik Larsen, president and owner, said the club was already a popular venue and that he saw potential for “sustainable renovation.”

“It has many assets; large land area, safe golf layout with room and dirt in place to work with, great water hazards, big shade trees, natural wetlands, favorable soil types, adequate buildings, lots of golfers, interest from The First Tee of North Florida and Flagler College and motivation by open minded key stakeholders to enhance the facility,” he wrote.

County Administrator Michael Wanchick told commissioners at their April 18 meeting that the long-awaited report on Phase I was coming soon.

He said the county was approached about halfway through the process by a company interested in a public-private partnership and a plan that would, essentially, take nine holes that are no longer being used and turn them into residential development. The county would then receive proceeds to reinvest in what’s left of the golf course.

The county in 2015 shot down a $1 million offer by a group of investors to purchase the golf course, saying the land alone was valued between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, and that the book value on the property was more like $6 million. Officials have said the course nearly pays for itself in terms of operations, although not much else, and there are taxpayers who use the course and homeowners who live around the course to consider.

Wanchick said the report will include information on what a number of options might look like, including selling the property outright, entering into a private-public partnership to make improvements, or maintaining the club as is. He said neither he nor staff would recommend taking a swing at the last option.

“You can’t limp along like we’re doing,” Wanchick said. “We’ve got to take a proactive action of some sort.”

According to a summary of Tuesday’s agenda item, Phase II, if approved by the board, would entail completion within six months of construction documents for a redesign of the golf course as well as a land plan that would allow for the surplus/sale of the land not used in that redesign. Funding would come from golf course reserves.

County Spokesman Michael Ryan told The Record this week there are many directions Tuesday’s discussion could go because pretty much everything is on the table. He said while the club has the support of many community groups and nearby homeowners, others aren’t as keen on the idea of keeping it on the county’s books.

According to the county, the roughly 340-acre property had an appraised value of $3.28 million in 2017. However, aging or lacking infrastructure that is impacting rounds of play and, therefore, revenues, will require maintenance and capital outlay dollars to bring it all up to par.

The club opened in 1989 as an 18-hole course. It includes a club house, restaurant, pro shop, driving range and putting green, and offers private lessons, golf clinics and youth training while hosting tournaments and sponsored leagues.

In 2002, an expanded 27-hole course operated in the black for several years. During the Great Recession, however, the facility’s numbers took a beating and, in 2011, the county closed the nine additional holes and shifted existing maintenance staff primarily to contract positions in order to minimize costs.

Even with reductions in operating costs, revenues continued to decline, hitting a low point of $1,044,964 in 2014. In 2015, the County Commission approved paying off about $1.8 million in golf course debt.

Last year was the first time operating revenues exceeded expenses in six years and the county anticipates 2017 revenues to exceed what they were in 2016. Still, the $1,169,710 generated last year falls well short of the $1,972,117 generated in 2007, after which the golf course saw seven straight years of declining revenues.

The 50,583 total rounds played in 2016 marked the third consecutive year of increases after taking a nosedive from 51,978 in 2011 to 43,697 in 2012 and bottoming out at 43,324 in 2013. The number of rounds played is still nowhere near the high water mark of 72,489 in 2008.

Historically, there’s been an average of 61,021 rounds played annually.

 

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