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After Years of Red Ink, Grass May Soon Be Greener For North Florida Municipal Golf Courses

Billy Buck chips the ball from the bunker on the fifth hole at the Palatka Golf Club. Buck, 78, has been playing at the historic golf course since 1955.
Billy Buck chips the ball from the bunker on the fifth hole at the Palatka Golf Club. Buck, 78, has been playing at the historic golf course since 1955.

Two North Florida municipal golf courses — long-time sieves in their respective city budgets — may be headed out of the rough.

Palatka Golf Club in Putnam County and Ironwood Golf Course in Gainesville are each owned by a city.

And each annually costs its city hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain. In an age of budget cuts, such maintenance is not always what tax payers would prefer its officials spend money on, according to Palatka City Manager Michael Czymbor.

“Generally, the city has lost significant amounts of money (on Palatka Golf Club) every year, which is being subsidized by the city’s general fund,” Czymbor said. “We’re taking tax payers’ dollars in order to balance that golf course enterprise fund.”

Palatka Golf Club lost $425,950 in fiscal year 2013, Czymbor said, though much of its expenses went toward paying off debt.

In Gainesville, similar golf course losses often appeared on the city's balance sheet.

The city purchased Ironwood in 1992 for $1.3 million. From 1992 to 2009, the golf course accrued nearly $3 million in debt and operation loss, said Steve Philips, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Activity.

Dozens of other such municipal courses exist across Florida, and many have faced similar deficits. In North Florida, though, it's harder for them to make a go of it.

Jeff Cardozo has been managing Ironwood since 2012. Last year, about 35,000 rounds of golf were played, up from 32,000 the year before. In order to break even, he said, customers would need to pay for 48,000 rounds a year.

“Gainesville is not a golf market, so it’s hard to get into that number,” Cardozo said.

Ironwood's new maintenance

In 2009, city commissioners voted to transfer the golf course from a business to recreational facility subsidized by the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department over a 10-year period — spending $300,000 a year to pay off Ironwood’s accumulated deficits.

The Gainesville City Commission decided Oct. 17 to keep Ironwood a public amenity.

OneSource Landscape and Golf Services, Inc., won the bid to maintain the golf course.

The city will spend about $700,000 this year to keep Ironwood running, including an expected $440,000 operating loss. Very few of the parks department's programs cover its costs, said Mark Benton, the city's budget and finance director.

"Ironwood is covering 75 to 80 percent of it, which is a pretty fair share,” Benton said.

Maintenance costs Ironwood the most at about $1 million annually, said Gainesville's Assistant General Manager Paul Folkers during a city commission meeting last week. OneSource Landscape offered a bid $30,000 lower than its current price and also offered to re-grass the fairways at no additional cost to the city, Folkers said.

Cardozo said he now uses social media and discounted events to reel players to Ironwood. An ad for the golf course is now featured on the Golf Channel.

“We’re getting a lot of people to come out here, and now, we’re making more money because more people are showing up,” Cardozo said.

Cardozo supports the decision to keep Ironwood self-managed to ensure the course continues to provide its facilities for the benefit of the community, he said. The golf course offers lessons and tournaments for local high school students and is a Special Olympics center.

If privatized, these community benefits would likely disappear, Cardozo said.

People spoke favorably about the city’s golf course during the Oct. 17 commission meeting. Floyd Gibson, a volunteer at Ironwood, said the golf course has received positive reviews from golfers as far away as Canada.

“Ironwood Golf Course is the best golf course in Alachua County," Gibson said at the meeting. "(The commissioners) should be proud of (the) investment in providing a recreational venue that also attracts visitors coming in.”

Palatka Golf Club's intangibles

Palatka Golf Club's 2013 fiscal year losses of $425,950 included $144,401 in payments on existing debt.

Wilson Edwards, a former Palatka High School athletic director, said the various civic organizations, clubs and churches that use the course for fundraising tournaments justify the tax payer expense.

“I think if the golf course wasn’t here, there would be a lot of charity money that would be missing in this community,” said Edwards.

Palatka Golf Club hosted 23 charity golf tournaments this year and helped to raise about $87,000 through charity tournaments, said general manager Andy Heartz.

The club is also home of the Senior Azalea and the Florida Azalea Amateur tournaments with more than 275 total players representing 14 states and five countries.

“We have people from all over the country and all over the world come in for that tournament,” Heartz said. “We estimate that the tournament brings in $275,000 to local businesses.”

Many people also visit the course because it was designed by Donald Ross, a famous Scottish golf course designer, Heartz said. The historic golf course, one of the oldest in Florida, was built in 1925 and borders the Ravines Gardens State Park.

Billy Buck, 79, has been playing at the vintage golf course since 1955.  Although the course's layout hasn't changed since Buck began playing 58 years ago, he said the quality of the grounds has fluctuated.

Buck said the grounds suffered from years of neglect and mismanagement while it was managed by Palatka employees. The course improved drastically after Palatka hired Bobby Weed Golf Design to manage the course four years ago, he said.

“Bobby Weed designs and builds golf courses from scratch,” Buck said. “He knows how to build and maintain a course.”

Chris Monti, of Bobby Weed Golf Design, wrote in an email that the first years were spent trying to improve, efforts now beginning to pay off.

Improvements this year include a 33-percent increase in annual membership revenue, a 14-percent increase in number of rounds played and an 18-percent increase in overall operating revenue.

The golf course lost about $127,000 during the 2013 fiscal year, compared to about $243,000 in 2012.

The five-year contract with the management company ends in September 2014, Czymbor said, and the city must consider options, which include extending or amending the contract, resuming city control of course and selling or closing the course. Discussions will probably begin next summer, he said.

“The commission has some very difficult decisions to make regarding the golf course enterprise fund,” Czymbor said.

Disclosure: WUFT News is a service of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication and part of its Division of Multimedia Properties, as is ESPN 850 WRUF. Jeff Cardozo is a radio host on ESPN 850 WRUF, though he was not involved in the reporting or decision to publish this story.

Joy is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing
Ashley is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing