Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 26, 2014 4:24 p.m.
On June 24, 2014 the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) met in workshop session to review proposed budgets for the city’s enterprise funds. The fund generating the most discussion was the golf course fund. Commissioners debated extending the Billy Casper Golf (BCG) management contract and accepting a $50,000 contribution from BCG to renovate the West Course greens.
Commissioners also discussed a possible ballot question: a straw poll to decide if citizens want to sell the golf course property. No consensus on either item was reached, but the FBCC directed City Manager Joe Gerrity to discuss possible terms with BCG and report back to the commission.
Five members of the Billy Casper Golf management team attended the workshop: Southeast Regional Managers Dan Zimmer and Chris Cygan; local course manager Josh O’Brian; and both incoming greens superintendent David Hillhouse and outgoing greens superintendent Buddy Tate.
Zimmer and his team stressed their desire and commitment to work positively with the city to produce a positive outcome on both the condition of the course and its revenues. O’Brian recapped the year’s successes, including adding 42 new members and earning a 96.1% score via a Mystery Shopper customer satisfaction program. He said that the course now has 332 active members. O’Brian stressed that the golf course is trying to send a positive message to bring repeat business and encourage former members to take a new look at the course. He added that the city course would never be at the same level as Amelia River or Northampton, but that it will be strongly competitive with other regional courses such as Jacksonville Beach.
Commissioner Charlie Corbett asked about pond excavations. O’Brian said they would be completed in a couple of weeks. In examining the balance sheet, Vice Mayor Sarah Pelican noted that facility rental was projected to drop to $1,700 from the $4,600 in the approved budget. O’Brian replied that more of the rentals involved purchasing food and beverage from the clubhouse than BCG has originally anticipated. When renters do that, BCG waives the facility rental fee for the event. In response to another question, he replied that the debt service would be satisfied in 7 years. Chris Cygan also participated in the briefing, speaking to future goals.
City Manager Gerrity reminded commissioners that BCG had a time sensitive offer on the table that will require a decision by the FBCC soon. BCG has expressed its commitment to partnering with the city to ensure Fernandina the long-term success of the municipal golf course. To that end, BCG has expressed a willingness to contribute $50,000 toward renovation of the West Course greens to begin no later than August 15, 2014. They believe that this would increase revenue potential heading into the fall and winter seasons. Their offer is contingent upon extending the city’s management contract with BCG for an additional five years. Gerrity reminded commissioners that it is highly unusual for a management company to offer to invest in a client’s facility, since that is the client’s responsibility.
O’Brian said that the August 15 deadline represented the latest that planting new grass could be delayed to see positive growth and change for next season.
Commissioner Corbett announced that he would not be in favor of renewing the existing contract for 5 years. He claimed that the contract had been written giving too much advantage to BCG, and that $50,000 “only” resulted in a contribution of $10,000 per year of the extension. He raised this point again during discussion, but was not asked for nor did he provide information on what advantages he felt BCG enjoyed under the current contract. Vice Mayor Sarah Pelican said that she had spent considerable time researching the current contract and was unable to locate an Exhibit 6 that had been stricken from the contract and initialed by “MC.” Both City Attorney Tammi Bach and the Clerk’s Office tried to resolve the matter during the discussion. Attorney Bach said she recalled that the item related to netting that was supposed to be provided in connection with a golf school that backed out of the agreement. BCG representatives agreed.
Pelican said that she would prefer a year-to-year contract, rather than a 5-year extension. City Attorney Tammi Bach explained to commissioners that regardless of the stated length of a contract, the agreement is only as long as the termination notice. Should the FBCC decide to provide for a one-year termination notice, the contract would in effect become a one-year contract.
Chatter among the commissioners seemed to reflect support for Pelican’s position.
At one point Commissioner Johnny Miller suggested that the city consider selling the golf course and converting it into residential property. Mayor Ed Boner had previously supported a similar move. Miller said that such a question be put out on a straw ballot, suggesting that it might not make sense for the city to run a golf course with such a low membership.
Commissioner Corbett replied that the golf course was a city asset. He said, “It was built for the residents, not as a moneymaker.” He suggested that years of transferring money from the golf course, when it was making money, to the general fund has led to the current state of finances.
Commissioner Pat Gass said that some in the city walk the beaches daily; others take advantage of other city offerings, like the golf course. “We are going to have to spread around and hang on to everything because everyone likes something different.” She said she was not in favor of selling any asset that a segment of the people enjoy.
Manager Gerrity stressed the generosity of BCG’s offer. He said that it is the city’s job to invest in its assets, and that it was extremely generous of BCG to make such an offer. He also cautioned commissioners “you can’t change drivers every 5 minutes and expect to win the race.”
Both Boner and Pelican referenced different expectations of the public when BCG was hired. Some people thought that BCG would be responsible for all the expenses because the golf course had been “privatized.” Attorney Bach said that the assets had not been privatized, and that neither the golf course nor the marina could be leased without subjecting the city to significant tax burdens. Comptroller Patti Clifford said that there would be no interest in a lease if the leaseholder were required to pay the taxes.
Gerrity told the commissioners that if there was no interest in pursuing BCG’s offer, further discussion was moot, because the existing contract remains in effect for 18 months.
Mayor Boner asked BCG manager Dan Zimmer if BCG would be amenable to renegotiation or including a longer termination period.
Zimmer replied, “It is worth exploring. BCG’s objective is to improve the course and the course revenues.”
Corbett again expressed his opinion that the existing contract is too one-sided favoring BCG, but did not close the door to a new, longer contract. Boner opined that he liked the longer agreement, believing it to be logical and reasonable.
Gerrity will discuss the contract with BCG representatives and report back to the FBCC.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.