A proposal for a two-tier driving range facility at Meadowbrook Golf Course received tepid approval on Wednesday night from the Alachua County Planning Commission.
The course has been closed since July 2021, when severe flooding from Tropical Storm Elsa inundated the area near Northwest 39th Avenue and Northwest 93rd Street. The course’s owner, Chris Marcum, sees the construction of the range as the means by which the course can withstand weather events and turn a year-round profit.
“For me, the only way the golf course is sustainable is if we can come up with a golf course-use stream of revenue on the high-dry part of the property,” he said.
Having the range as a backup option for when heavy rain floods the southern part of the course would allow him to keep the course operating and employees paid.
“Without it … the property’s not sustainable as it currently is,” Marcum said.
His pitch to the county is a smaller version of the popular Topgolf establishments, of which there are eight elsewhere in Florida. It would not be a Topgolf franchise, but the 15,000-square-foot structure would incorporate those ranges’ ball-tracking technology, “gamification” of players’ drives, a 150-foot high net and the serving of food and alcohol within the 18 group hitting bays. Topgolf locations tend to have 100 or more hitting bays with speakers and LED floodlights, but even the scaled-down version without speakers or nighttime illumination has drawn objections from homeowners in the nearby Meadowbrook subdivision.
“Traffic and safety will be a big issue,” said Stephen Smittle, who lives next to the course’s ninth hole and is president of the Meadowbrook Property Owners’ Association. The range could bring hundreds of additional patrons each night, and Smittle and other residents who spoke Wednesday night worried about what that would mean for their quiet way of life.
“Many of us bought our homes here because we wanted to live in a golf course community,” he said, adding that by working with Marcum and county planning staff, he hopes the neighborhood and course could maintain that vibe while still seeing a successful range business come about.
If the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners approves the proposal later this summer, Marcum could start the design and construction of the range on what is now the course’s first hole along Northwest 98th Street. The new first hole would be shortened and relocated. The proposed site of the range is one of the few spots on the course that didn’t see widespread flooding following Tropical Storm Elsa and again after nearly 10 inches of rain fell in March and April.
The course and its surrounding neighborhoods like the Hills of Santa Fe have been flood-prone areas for years, with Hurricane Irma having also closed the course for a time in 2017. After that event, Marcum added tens of thousands of dollars in water pumping equipment to help keep the course open after big rains.
Elsa showed that wasn’t enough.
The course’s cycle of floods and closures represented a chicken-and-egg scenario on Wednesday, when planning commissioners asked if the course would reopen and improve before the range was completed. They also requested details about a stipulation county staff made that the course must be open for the range to operate. Answers to both questions remained unclear at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, though the planning staff and Marcum said they would iron out details if county commissioners approve the plan.
The county commission’s pending decision on the proposal represents a possible end to its rocky two-year path, which COVID-19 further delayed. Marcum first came up with the idea for an expanded driving range in early 2020 and was able to gather neighborhood feedback and alter the proposal during the pandemic.
Still, it appeared on Wednesday that some neighbors grew warier of the proposed parking, lighting and noise as time went on. They don’t love the current appearance of the shuttered course buildings, paths and fairways now, either, and worry it’s going to get worse.
“Personally, I feel we’re being blackmailed,” resident James Moon said. “We don’t really have a choice. What the owner is saying is, ‘If you don’t approve my project, I’m going to let it rot.'”
Planning commissioners on Wednesday ultimately voted 5-3 to recommend the proposal to the county commission, with an additional request that Marcum and his development partners conduct a traffic analysis to ensure the range doesn’t cause the small neighborhood any parking woes.
“I think you’re trying to fit a size 10 foot into a size five shoe,” said commissioner Diane Bendekovic, who ultimately voted against it.
Of the five commissioners who voted in favor, Melissa Norman was among those most supportive.
“I applaud the applicant to make this work and to work with the community,” she said.
If the county commission approves it, construction of the range could begin in early 2023, with its opening to follow within a year.