DUNEDIN — City officials want to get a better grip on the Dunedin Golf Club's operations and improvement plans.
After nearly three hours of discussion on future available options outlined in a consultant's report, most city commissioners agreed by consensus Nov. 30 to support a hybrid plan that allows the city to employ senior staff and have complete control of the operation, which is now a semi-private club.
Plans under that option call for $2.75 million or more in upgrades to the club's golf course, which is experiencing poor drainage along with aging greens and other issues.
Something has to change, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said, because there hasn't been enough extra cash to do the projects necessary to sustain the golf club. She said on behalf of all residents, more oversight is needed.
"I'm not saying that in any kind of a bad way; it's just a fact," she said.
With the city's oversight, the city might be able to bring in more expertise and funding for the club's needs, she said.
"Yes, I think those greens need to be done," Bujalski said. "I’m going to tell you that clubhouse looks like a nursing home, and it needs to look better … It deserves to be attractive."
Bujalski and Commissioners Deborah Kynes, Moe Freaney and Jeff Gow generally backed city staff's recommendation to pursue the Dunedin Hybrid plan, also known as option four, for the golf club, and asked staff to pursue it.
The Dunedin Golf Club is operated through a license with the city that runs through June 2022.
With all the money that taxpayers are contributing to the club, taxpayers must have more of a leadership role in it, Freaney said, and it should have a board that is more community oriented.
The best transition is respecting the history and expertise, Freaney said, noting that the club has stability and great services, such as food and beverages.
Among issues discussed was whether the course should be restored to embrace the design components of a Donald Ross course. Ross is a legendary golf course architect who designed about 400 courses across the country, including the Dunedin Golf Club.
"I'll be honest, about 90 percent of the people I talk to say this is a small group of people that want the full restoration," Freaney said.
'An amazing historic asset'
City Commissioner John Tornga said the whole focus of the project that commissioners were dealing with that morning should have been the course, not the club — such as how much money they want to spend on it and why.
"If I owned that course, the course is a tremendous asset. The problem is it has not been funded to the degree it needs to be, to be calling it a Donald Ross course," he said.
As the city gets bigger, there will be a lot of golfers in the population coming to Dunedin, he said, calling the course a drawing card.
Under the hybrid proposal, city officials would appoint an advisory board to provide input. Currently, it is run by a board of directors.
"To encumber it more by bringing in people who are not sure about golf, I don't understand it. I'll try to understand it if that's the way we go," Tornga said.
Gow said he didn't want to outprice the residents on whatever they do with restoration of the course.
But Gow also said he has some concerns about food and beverages under a different management plan for the club, especially since he has no background in restaurant operations.
"Things seem to be running well. We got some restaurants that could come in, but is another restaurant in there … what we want or do we want that clubhouse feel," Gow said.
He also suggested looking into the possibility of having a culinary school that would serve the purpose of providing food and beverages and training staff for existing restaurants in town.
"I think it's something outside of the box that's worthy of consideration," he said.
Kynes said the advisory board should consist of residents, fee players and Dunedin Golf Club board members.
Kynes said she has no doubt that city officials could provide major help in marketing efforts for the club.
"It is a huge historic asset we are missing out on because of our marketing," Kynes said.
She called the golf course "an amazing historic asset."
"And we need to just enfold that into the community, whether you play golf or you just want to go out there and see it and have lunch, a drink or whatever," she said.
Thoughtful transition sought
Richard Singer, a consultant for the National Golf Foundation, discussed options for the golf course at length, such as leasing the property to the private sector, which would fund the upgrades.
He said the hybrid plan gives the city a chance to give more input into what's going on at the club and address its main concerns.
"That this is a city property for the benefit for all the residents of Dunedin, rather than a private club for the benefit of a select few," Singer said.
City Parks and Recreation Director Vince Gizzi said staff feels option four would provide the most seamless transition versus bringing in private management as proposed in two of the options.
City officials can provide internal services and support, he said.
"We have a full team behind us to assist us with running this course," Gizzi said.
City Manager Jennifer Bramley said if approved by the commission, funds under the America Rescue Plan earmarked for the golf course would be the second largest investment for the city's use of the money.
"So it's crucial that the funding plan moving forward is very transparent to the public at large. The only way I know how to do that is if the city takes over oversight of the course itself and its expenditures," she said.
She asked that staff be given time to work on "thoughtful, systematic transition."
The commission heard from club members and others on the proposed options for the club.
Mike Bowman, president of the Dunedin Golf Club, said he doesn't see the need for a change in the way the club is managed.
"Thing are working very well the way they are," Bowman said. "So why don't we go ahead and get everything taken care of right on the course. I don't see why we need to do anything aside from what we have right now because it's working," he said.
Having a Donald Ross course is like having a Frank Lloyd Wright house, he said.
"You have to build it up and let it be," Bowman said.
Kevin Janiga, president of the Dunedin Men's Golf Association, named several cities that have restored their golf courses in recent years.
The Mooresville Country Club in North Carolina restored its Donald Ross golf course in 2016.
Prior to the restoration, the club was making $800,000 a year in golf revenue. After the restoration, the club made $1.8 million in 2020 and is approaching $2 million in 2021, Janiga said.
"So in closing, we think that a restoration of $3.8 million would generate at least $800,000 a year in incremental revenue, and we could pay that back in five years," Janiga said.
Dunedin Board of Finance Chairman Dave Loeffert said his comments will probably make him the most unpopular person in the room, but "I've been there, done that so I'm OK with that."
He said the Board of Finance has followed this issue closely in the seven years of his tenure on the board and has kept it as a regular monthly item on the agenda in his five years as chairman.
The board recognizes that the club is a highly valued asset but also has always felt that that it was reasonable that the club should be financially self-sustaining.
"And that by that we mean not only to pay for day-to-day operating expenses but also set aside for capital when improvements were necessary," Loeffert said.
That hasn't happened over time or the city wouldn't be looking for $3 million to $4 million from taxpayers to upgrade the golf course, he said.
The board voted unanimously to support option four.