Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Course – “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic”

By Chip Ross
April 25, 2022

A recent News Leader editorial boldly declared that the City golf course now needs outside management. The editorial suggests outside management will either vanquish or ameliorate the City golf course woes.

In 2010 the City Commissioners hired a management company to make the golf course profitable and contribute revenue to the general fund. The management company then spent 10 years trying to provide an affordable course with exceptional conditioning and a first-class club house with exceptional food. According some of the current commissioners and others the management company failed.  The previous City Commission voted to not renew the management contract and hire City staff to manage the golf course.


Others think you get what you pay for, the course is in an acceptable condition, affordable and they are satisfied. On average, over the last 10 years, 42,000 rounds of golf per year have been played on the course. The course is widely used by the community.

The editorial advice continued: “At some point, city commissioners must decide the future of the golf course”.  City commissions have been avoiding that decision for more than 15 years.

It comes as no surprise the City golf course loses money. When your business plan for the last 15 years has been to offer something for less than it costs to provide, that tends to happen.

Some background information may help to explain the golf course dilemma.

The Fernandina Golf Course is a 27-hole facility with a driving range, maintenance facility, pro shop, restaurant and banquet room. The North Nine first opened in 1957, the West Nine opened in 1959, and the South Nine opened in 1972. Golf courses age and mature. Even with the best maintenance, golf courses need periodic renovation to replace aging turf and other infrastructure. The putting greens and fairways need renovation every 15-30 years. The bunkers [sand traps] need replacement every 5-7 years. The tees need renovation every 15-20 years. If these renovations are not done, the cost of maintaining or minimizing the decline of a golf course escalates.

The City Commissioners have funded few renovations to the course over the past 65 years.  Over the last 15 years, the City has funded several studies to recommend what was needed to replace or renovate the turf and other infrastructure. To finally do the recommended improvements today, would cost approximately 4 million dollars. This is another example of the City Commission (present and past) paying for studies and then not implementing the recommendations.

The current club house was built in 1972. It shows its age. The carpets have never been replaced. Much of the kitchen equipment is at the end of its useful life. Parts of the interior ceilings need replacement and the rest rooms have never been renovated. Approximately $250,000 would be required to provide a friendly, useable public space for community activities and the food and beverage services for the golf course.

All the above capital projects have been in proposed previous budgets but removed or only partially funded due to the previous or current City Commissions not committing to the expenditures.

The business plan the City Commissioners have adopted for the golf course, for at least the last 15 years, is to promise and offer something for less than it costs to provide. The consequence of that is “deferred maintenance”. Without replacing and / or renovating greens, fairways, bunkers, cart paths and other facilities they come to the end of their useful life and are difficult to maintain in any useable condition. Most of the golf course is at that point.

Before deciding who is going to manage a declining golf course and facility in dire need of renovation, the City Commission needs to come to a consensus on the future vision for the golf course. Will the golf course be closed to save money? Will the golf course be minimally maintained for those who accept its current condition? Or will the City Commissioners fund the renovations to create a well-regarded municipal golf course. Until that decision is made by the City Commission, it is unlikely that any management change at the golf course will make any significant difference to the condition or profitability of the City golf course.

Without such a decision, metaphorically, the City Commissioners are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

If you have any questions or concerns, I can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note:  Chip Ross is a Fernandina Beach City Commissioner. 

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John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_64780)
1 year ago

Thank you, Chip, for pointing out the obvious.
No matter who is “managing” the golf course, the City is still responsible to pay for the capital and maintenance costs.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64843)
1 year ago
Reply to  John Goshco

Your SPOT ON John.

DAVID LOTT(@dave-l)
1 year ago

Spot on Chip. Without consistent investment in the course the condition will continue to deteriorate. Now in complete fairness, there have been some significant investments in the course infrastructure such as a new irrigation system and replacement of A/C system in clubhouse. 42,000 rounds of golf a year sounds like a lot, but I believe that is 42,000 rounds of 9-hole golf or 21,000 rounds of 18 holes. A daily average of only 58 18-hole rounds a day on a 27 hole course. Of course we know that averages can be misleading with weather a major factor as well as seasonal/weekends, but nonetheless that average rate of play does not justify a 27-hole course in MHO. The South course seems to be the one most frequently cited as in the worst condition due to its sandy soil condition. Perhaps close down the South course to regular golf and provide minimal mowing and converting it for Flinggolf. Minimal equipment investment and a way for non-golfers to get out, gain some exercise and enjoy the course.
After years of decline, the overall golf industry in the US seems to be making a comeback with increased participation. Give TopTracer one more year and if it doesn’t break even, shut it down.
As to a management company versus city managed. What is the financial difference? While the management company is going to charge a management fee on top or other operating expenses, the biggest benefits are quantity discounts on supplies and equipment (mowers, carts, etc.) and supposedly a team of extremely knowledgeable golf course professionals along with agronomists and the ability to draw on the resources of a national base of experience.
But as Chip noted, without the proper funding, the course condition will never improve.

Doug Pugh
Doug Pugh (@guest_64802)
1 year ago
Reply to  DAVID LOTT

There seems to be a tremendous amount of talk about closing South Course. Wouldn’t be a bad idea except when there is a significant amount of rain. Then west course is flooded and doesn’t dry for several days. Now we have a nine hole course. There’s much more to this than meets the eye.

Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery(@douglasm)
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Pugh

The biggest problem with the South Course, IMO, is too much shade inhibiting good grass. It is the only one that meanders thru a housing development, which does give it a different character from the “vanilla” North and West, but the tree growth was rarely curtailed because of the neighborhood. Several tee boxes are in perpetual shade……..so it looks worse. Effective tree trimming could improve the situation.

Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_64793)
1 year ago

I have read so may reviews from David Lott, this man knows alot……why isn’t he the head honcho? I totally agree w/ what he says about the golf course!!.

DAVID LOTT(@dave-l)
1 year ago
Reply to  Margo Story

Margo, thanks for the kind comments. We lived in FB for 13 years and I was active in several of the city committees and the like; but a job relocation took us back to the Atlanta area so now I am just a commentator from the bleachers but with a passion for all the wonderful things about Fernandina Beach.

Joe McNamara
Joe McNamara (@guest_64794)
1 year ago

Some things are done without expecting a profit. The public golf course and driving range are an amenity for the community. For all the “studies” the city has ordered, they could have renovated the south course!

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe McNamara

The FBGC is not an “amenity” for the city when it stands in direct and stiff competition from at least 4 other courses in far better shape right here on the island. As the other course managers know, it takes money to make a golf course good, never mind great. Like everything else on Amelia, this topic suffers from a paralysis of analysis. Been there, tried that. Let’s all move on in a positive direction for the City. FBGC has been a maintenance and financial drain for the the ten years I have lived here. At a minimum it should be self sustaining and it is not. You would not run your household budget at a deficit for years. Why would you ever suggest the city do such a thing with the FBGC?

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64845)
1 year ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

Your SPOT ON Betsie!

Mike McClane
Mike McClane(@concerned-citizen)
1 year ago

Kudos to Mr.Ross for restating the obvious.The golf course has been discussed here frequently. I agree with his deferred maintenance comment. There are a number of capital projects that are in disrepair or end of life. It has taken years of negliect across the city not just the golf course. It will take years and a strategy for the cure. The FBCC consideration of a general bond essentially was to kick the solution down the road a few years.

I actually sent the FBCC a suggested solution to eliminate 9 holes and reconfigure the remaining space. I received little feedback. Recently the TDC has taken on a project to bring sports tournaments to Nassau County. Ironically, there is a new sports complex in West County. Seems like the city lost out on a potential opportunity.

He has done little during his watch with the maintenance issue beyond admiring the problem. He offers no solution here. For those truly interested, take a look at the 2019 Visioning Session #2 , attended by 60% of the current FBCC. It says a lot.

Doug Bailey
Doug Bailey (@guest_64798)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike McClane

Just a few corrections to Mr. Ross’s article: the club house was built in the early 2000s; the choice was either a new sprinkler system or a club house and they chose the club house. During that period the golf course was the only public golf course on the island averaging 69,000-70,000 rounds a year. The golf course was a profitable enterprise fund. With the opening of multiple semi private golf courses in Nassau County in the early 2000s it put extreme pressure on the revenues at the golf course. At the same time the course was taking on debt for the club house and later a new overpriced sprinkler system. It was a perfect storm of declining revenues and increased debt service. The course has been struggling ever since. As for recent upgrades, the greens had been renovated starting in the mid 2015s using a lower priced process meant to last only seven to ten years rather than the usual 30 years. This was based on budgetary constraints at the time. I won’t comment on Top Tracer which has put golf course in further debt with no end in sight.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64847)
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Bailey

I’ve addressed the issue with Top Tracer and HIS involvement with all this.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64846)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike McClane

Your SPOT ON Mike!

Gary Auger
Gary Auger (@guest_64797)
1 year ago

If you’re going to keep it open, maintain it to a standard that resembles a golf course and take some pride in it. I played there last week and the conditions were absolutely horrible! At $65.00 (and I live 2 minutes away) for a “non-resident”, I can play a much better course for another $10. Maybe instead of trying to maintain 27 holes, put the money and effort on 18 holes!!!

Bob Weintraub
Bob Weintraub(@rukbat23gmail-com)
1 year ago

It’s not just the golf course; the City Commission is the Titanic. Many needed improvements and renovations (city hall, downtown infrastructure, flood prevention, etc.) are kicked down the road by a commission that is financially illiterate. We need new commissioners who have the fortitude to get and spend the money necessary to keep Fernandina viable.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64848)
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Weintraub

You certainly hit the nail on the head with that comment! I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s amazing how he trys to shine in the commission with this article, but he’s just as GUILTY as ALL the past and present commissioners.

Tom Yankus
Tom Yankus (@guest_64801)
1 year ago

I live DIRECTLY across from the driving range. Or, as many state, “the work zone area called a Top Tracer.” Unfortunately I can’t play (bad shoulder at 75) but I walk by most everyday. I see little activity daily/365 looking out from my window or when on my afternoon walks. Top Tracer is an embarrassment to the city that prides itself on many clean and manicured park areas. Yes, it is an albatross and yes it still resembles a work zone area that is still in progress. Didn’t it cost taxpayers over $500,000+? With respect sir it was a waste of our money as I see little revenue generated on a daily basis.
With that said, you discredit past city commissioners for basically ‘kicking the can down the road’ regarding improvements to the municipal golf course. This may be true. But, as memory serves I recall you were part of the commission that rubber stamped this project.
A half million is a lot of tax payers money literally gone to waste…

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64849)
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Yankus

I totally agree with you.

Wanda B
Wanda B (@guest_67884)
8 months ago
Reply to  Tom Yankus

You right it’s going into the pockets and bank accounts

Rich Cassidy
Rich Cassidy (@guest_64808)
1 year ago

Just follow the votes of developers friends. You will see where ending the course by council was the the fate of many financially upside down city golf courses. Surely, a cash cow for new housing developers. Not the city.

The only way to save it is to treat it as a public service category. Run it lean, expect less than world class, market to the locals, fund general upkeep. Studies be damned. An expensive revival, yes, depending upon expectations of grandeur. Try this: Rifle down the budget over 6 month periods of 100k each. Replace ceiling and carpet ($10k) an oven, ($5k,), 3 tee boxes ($8k ea.) and 3 greens ($20k ea) first 6 months of 1st year. The next six months of year 2: one stove ($3k), common area furniture ($5k), another 3 greens (@$20k ea), 3 tee boxes ($8k ea), Paint ($5k). And so on. Always improve. Little bites at a time. Budget minded project management consultants can make it happen under budget, cost spread out over 5 years if left unencumbered. It comes down to reasonable expectations and can the committee sincerely adopt the plan, fund the 100k per year. I believe they can execute with actionable intent without developers influence.

James (@guest_65254)
1 year ago
Reply to  Rich Cassidy

Keep it as 18 holes, turn 7 of the holes into an RV resort, build a decent outdoor and indoor 19th hole so non-golfers might actually use the facility. Go visit Dubsdread GC in Orlando and see how a successful community course is operated

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_64842)
1 year ago

Thank you Dr. Ross on such a good story concerning the city golf course, but you left out a very important fact about your direct involvement in ALL THIS with your decision to bring in TOP TRACER to the course to IMPROVE revenue, but all it did was FLUSH more Fernandina Beach residents MONEY down the TIOLET. If your not part of the SOLUTION, your part of the PROBLEM!!!