Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 7, 2022
While the future existence of the Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Course is not in doubt, Commissioners seem uncertain as to the best way to manage it. City Commissioners cannot agree on whether the operation is an amenity or a business. Two Commissioners do not golf, while three do, including Mayor Mike Lednovich, who is a member of Amelia River Golf Course and does not play the City course.
At the April 5, 2022 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meeting, staff recommended that in keeping with the recommendation of the Golf Course Advisory Board, the City Manager be authorized to continue operating the City course in-house until October 2023. After considerable debate and discussion the FBCC voted to do so by passing Resolution 2022-65 on a 3-2 vote. Both Lednovich and Vice Mayor Len Kreger voted against the measure, preferring to issue an RFP for outside management prior to deciding to continue operations in-house.
In 2021, the agreement for golf course management services with Antares (formerly Billy Casper) expired. At its May 4, 2021, meeting, the City Commission directed the City Manager to temporarily take management of the City’s municipal golf course in-house for one full budget year, at which time the City Commission would consider permanent management of the Golf Course.
At its February 2022 meeting, the City Manager asked the Golf Course Advisory Board (GCAB) to provide a recommendation to the City Commission regarding management of the golf course in the coming fiscal year. The GCAB recommended that management be kept in-house for an additional year.
Commissioner Bradley Bean, who quickly moved to approve the recommendation, expressed his belief that even though the FBCC had initially agreed to reconsider management after a year, the Covid-19 pandemic had adversely impacted operations until more recently. He wanted to see more data gathered from a post pandemic year.
Commissioner David Sturges, who seconded Bean’s motion, agreed. He said, “I think the golf course manager is doing a great job and things are headed in the right direction. [The course] is improving slowly, but it is improving. I give kudos to the golf course employees, and I think it’s only going to go up from here. I’m not sure that we would even need an RFP for new management.”
Mayor Lednovich weighed in from a different perspective. He said he never wanted to return the operation in house, but went along when other Commissioners wished to do so. He reminded Commissioners that the City resumed management in March 2021. He agreed that staff was working diligently to improve the course. “You inherited a really bad situation,” he said.
However, Lednovich went on to say that the City should not be operating businesses. “We should have a professional management firm run the golf course,” he said. Lednovich then spoke to the poor income the course is receiving from food and beverage sales and special events. “That’s where you make your money,” he said. “You don’t make your money on greens fees and cart fees. That money pays for maintenance.”
Lednovich noted that Food & Beverage is performing so badly that when the City put that part of the operation out for bid, there were no responses.
He continued to point out financial problems caused by bringing staffing back in-house, thereby requiring the City to pay for health insurance and pension contributions. He went on to characterize TopTracer as “an abysmal disaster.”
“We need to put out an RFP for professional management and get this albatross off the taxpayers’ backs,” Lednovich said. “At the very least, by putting out an RFP we can understand the possibilities.”
He continued, “I urge the Commission not to approve this Resolution. Put it out on RFP. I’m not saying the City will turn operations over to [a private concern]. I’m just saying, let’s preserve our options. We are like the board of directors. So who are we going to hold accountable [for the golf course’s success]?”
He relayed unsolicited, negative comments that he had received about the City course during his play at Amelia River. “That hurts me to hear those words, because I have no defense,” he said.
Commissioner Chip Ross said the fundamental issue lies in whether the golf course should be run as a business or a recreation amenity. He went on to say that if the course is to be run as a business, it needs significant capital investment, which Commissions have not been willing to provide. “The problem isn’t the management,” he said. “It’s lack of capital. If you are not willing to invest the capital, it’s always going to be what it is. No management company is going to come in and turn the operation around. … We put the capital into the marina, but we have not done the same with the golf course. Parts of the course are 50-60 years old, and golf courses are supposed to be totally redone every 20-30 years. The underlying substructure has not been replaced. Under the circumstances, I think City staff is doing a good job, and I will vote to support the motion.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with Lednovich that the City should issue an RFP just to see what is out there. “It costs us nothing but a little labor to put out an RFP,” he said.
Commissioner Sturges said, “I thought we had decided to manage this as a municipal golf course. With all the financial needs placed on the City today, we cannot deal with every issue facing the City at the same time. I agree a thousand percent with Chip, that improvement will take capital outlay. And yet we just cut off the $250K that we had been contributing to the operation each year. I highly disagree with the need for an RFP at this time. I agree that operations need improvement, but let’s give City staff another year to work on this. If we want to bring our course to the same standard as Amelia River or Omni, we’d have to spend millions of dollars. We don’t have that kind of capital.”
Ross disagreed with Kreger’s statement that an RFP costs the City nothing. “There is a lot of work that goes into an RFP, and that is provided by City staff,” he said. “If they have to prepare an RFP, they are not running the golf course.” Kreger continued to maintain that it would be a minimal cost.
City Manager Dale Martin said that one of the unseen costs is the uncertainty that an RFP presents for the staff, who don’t know whether they will retain jobs if the operation is turned over to an outside company. “We lost previous staff at the golf course, because when an RFP is advertised, whether the FBCC accepts or rejects the results, there is job uncertainty that causes staff to look elsewhere,” Martin said. “I will stand here and commit that I think City Staff can turn the golf course around.”
Current golf course manager Mike Cooney, who has held the position since June 1, 2021, addressed the FBCC. “I think the numbers that you are going to see for March will be pretty impressing,” he said. The course has recorded 18,500 rounds played since October 1, and almost 4,000 rounds this past March.” Cooney said that the course has brought in about $840K over the last six months. He said that he had anticipated only $100K per month. He quoted from a nationwide publication that stated that golfing has gained in popularity since the arrival of Covid.
“I am not a fan of management companies,” Cooney said, “but I will say this: keep a pulse on the condition of the golf course. It never should have gotten into this condition. Not to pick on the previous management company, but they should never have let it deteriorate to this condition. Today the greens are in pretty good shape. You have an excellent golf course superintendent and a great mechanic. I’m not opposed to you putting out bids for a management company at all. I respect each and every one of you.”
Cooney credited City Manager Dale Martin for his work to improve the golf course. “You’ve got a wonderful asset out there in the golf course; treat it as your baby. I’ve just got a good feeling about it,” he said.
Lednovich said that the golf course is the most used facility in the City, recording 60,000 rounds played. “Let’s just be real: the Golf Course is what it is. Why we have a golf course advisory board is beyond me. We just frustrate them. We are not putting any resources into the golf course. We don’t have any money to improve it.”
Lednovich called the question and the Resolution passed on a 3-2 vote.