Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 5, 2021
Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) devoted close to an hour during their May 4, 2021 Regular Meeting to discussing language and terms to be included in an RFP soliciting interest in leasing or managing the City Golf Course. After all was said and done, the FBCC then voted unanimously to kill the RFP that had been prepared by City Attorney Tammi Bach and take a step back, voting instead to allow the City run the golf course for a full budget year before considering seeking outside interest via an RFP. The lone dissenting vote was Commissioner Bradley Bean.
City Attorney Bach had been tasked to prepare the RFP that was ultimately rejected. Commissioner Ross led the questioning about the RFP, what information it contained, and what information would be needed by any potential bidder to produce a responsible bid.
Problems were identified with the vagueness over capital improvements and annual City subsidies. In a previous meeting the FBCC had indicated that it could not commit to dollar amounts to fund the Golf Course operations and capital improvements until they could review the entire Capital Improvement Plan, which would identify needs for the entire City. Ross maintained that unless interested potential bidders knew to what extent the City would provide support, they would be unable to responsibly reply.
Ross also noted that the RFP needed to clearly state that any potential lessee needed to be made aware that they would be required to pay ad valorem taxes on the Golf Course. Those bidding to manage but not lease the operation would not have that obligation.
Mayor Mike Lednovich had contacted two men with long experience in golf course management. They had provided their input as to what it would take in the way of improvements to upgrade the City course. Lednovich asked that their input be incorporated into the RFP.
Why an RFP?
Commissioner Ross asked if the purpose of the RFP was to upgrade the course or basically maintain the status quo without major changes.
Ross said that it was his impression that local golfers appreciated the low cost of golf on the City course, which has had low key improvements over the recent past. He asked why the City was looking to make major improvements if the public seemed satisfied.
Lednovich disagreed, reminding Commissioners that on a resort island golfers expected a much higher level of play and service. He cited comments that had been directed to him that were sharply critical of the course conditions.
Ross seemed to support the view that the City course exists primarily for the benefit of local golfers who are not expecting higher levels of play which could be accompanied by higher costs per round.
Commissioner Bradley Bean said that he supported issuing an RFP “to see what’s out there.”
At cross purposes: upgrade or maintain?
During the discussion it became clear that commissioners had not even decided whether the RFP should encompass operation of an 18-hole or a 27-hole golf course. Some Commissioners suggested attaching a copy of the Capital Improvements Plan to the RFP.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said, “The real key to this is deciding what needs to be done and what we [as the City] are willing to pay for.” The RFP did not specify what improvements would be required from the successful bidder, and which the City would provide.
Ross said, “It’s hard to bid on something if you don’t know what the expectation is.”
Lednovich said his recommendation was to incorporate all the suggestions provided by two golf course experts in their letters to him.
Sturges suggested tabling the motion until such time as those suggestions could be incorporated into the RFP. Bach agreed.
While the City has been subsidizing the golf course to the tune of $220K annually, the RFP indicated that there would be no City subsidy. Bach said that with the elimination of golf course debt later this year and the introduction of Toptracer, that was the goal.
Lednovich said, “So it’s clear that we want the experts’ recommendations added to the RFP, and that the RFP will come back for our vote.”
“The more you can tell people what you want, the better they can bid on it,” Ross said. “Right now this RFP is loosey-goosey, so you are going to come back with all sorts of bids.”
Great leap forward or business as usual?
Bach said that she would guess that the golf course budget for the coming fiscal year will be close to what it has been for the past 5 years. “If you want additional things done, you will be raising the standards and the costs for the golf course budget,” she said. “If you are intending to raise the standards, you’d better be prepared to spend the money.”
Lednovich restated his belief that by incorporating the language provided by the golf course professionals, it would tighten up the RFP and answer many questions. “But if anybody thinks that it’s business as usual and we are just going to keep the golf course as it is, why are we going through this exercise?”
Ross said, “I’m very happy keeping the golf course the way it is. I think it is an affordable, playable golf course that we are already spending too much money on. This is my personal opinion, and I’ve said it before — no news flash. I’m not a golfer but most people tell me yeah, it’s okay, it’s not the greatest course in the world but it’s affordable.”
Lednovich asked, “Why are we having the most expensive City employee work on this RFP if our goal is to maintain the status quo? We could just sit here and say, let the City run it. We’d save ourselves 90 grand. Let the City run it, keep it the way it is. If the goal is not to improve it but just to maintain the status quo, we are going through an awful lot of work, when we could easily make that decision and direct the City Manager to put together a golf course staff and not go out on RFP.”
Kreger said he has not been happy with the entire process, which began last July. Kreger acknowledged that he is not a golfer and could accept the decision to keep it in-house.
Commissioner David Sturges said, “I am not opposed to the City running the golf course. With direction from the City Manager they have provided what we have now, and yes, obviously it needs improvement. But there’s no reason why we can’t improve it based upon what we are willing to spend. It’s all about money.”
Commissioner Bradley Bean said, “The point of the RFP was to find out what options are out there. I would still vote for that.’
Lednovich made his final comments. “You are correct that if you issue an RFP, any interested management company will want to improve the golf course. The standards that we are setting in the RFP are designed around that. We did not continue with Billy Casper because we all agreed that the golf course had gone into disarray, that it was not the quality expected from a municipal golf course — at least 9 holes of it.”
City Manager Dale Martin said that since the City had planned to bid on the RFP, he had demanded total transparency for the team that would be preparing the response, including himself, current golf course manager Steve Murphy and City Comptroller Pauline Testagrose. That was why preparation of the RFP had been assigned to the City Attorney. He added that if the RFP goes forward, the City will respond to each and every requirement contained therein.
Martin said, “I think it does a disservice to current City golf course staff to say they do not desire to improve the course. They recognize the course needs improvement. We want to and are trying to improve the golf course. But as has been said time and time again, how much money are you willing to put into it, because it does cost money. I think we are on the right path. We’ve saved money by eliminating a management company, by paying off the debt service. With enhanced revenues from Top Tracer, I think we can do it.”
Ross acknowledged that he had misspoke earlier in advocating for status quo. He said that the golf course has improved, but at a slow rate due to the resources the FBCC has committed. “I believe that over the past few years the City golf staff has made significant improvements,” he said.
When the motion to approve the RFP as presented was voted upon, it failed on a unanimous vote.
Kreger moved and was seconded by Bean to direct the City Attorney to make changes to the RFP and bring it back to the FBCC at the June 1 meeting.
In light of the amount of work required by the City Attorney to make these revisions, Ross asked, “Are we committed to putting a proposal out there that basically says we will increase the cost of playing golf at our course?”
Lednovich said the goal in seeking outside advice was to find ways to make the City golf course profitable and remove debt. In order to do this, the experts said that the golf course needs improvement. Lednovich acknowledged that he is a golfer and that he believes that the City is underselling its course on a resort island. “Does the course need to be Amelia River quality? No. But it needs to be municipal course quality, which it is not. So gentlemen, do you want the golf course to be profitable? If the answer is yes, you can’t keep running it like it is.”
Lednovich suggested that a tiered pricing structure could address the twin goals of profitability and affordability to local golfers by charging more for out of state visitors and non-city golfers.
Sturges said, that going out on RFP amounts to giving money away. “If we want a better course, we can invest more money. It’s not rocket science. It’s mowing the grass, maintaining it, and having the right people working there. If we task the City Manager with making improvements, it will ultimately be cheaper for the City than hiring a management company.”
Sturges said, “I don’t know how the City couldn’t run the golf course, if we give them a little more money to get better results than from an outside company.”
Kreger agreed to withdraw his motion and Bean withdrew his second. Lednovich stepped down as Mayor to make a new motion. He moved that the FBCC allow the City to run the golf course for one full budget year, and that the situation be reviewed after that year. Sturges seconded the motion.
City Manager Martin said that if the motion passes, the City will post all the golf course positions because currently all staff employed there are temporary/seasonal employees with terms not to exceed September 2021.
The motion passed 4-1, with only Bean opposing this approach to resolving at least for a year the question of who manages the City golf course.