Boca Raton: Park District votes to take back control of golf course project

By Mary Hladky

Seven weeks after Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District commissioners reluctantly gave in to City Council pressure to allow the city to build the Boca National golf course, they have decided to take back control.

Commissioners remained firm on this decision during a Jan. 27 joint meeting between the two bodies, saying they could build the course and pay for it without city help or a tax rate increase.

The meeting was marred by distrust on both sides, with City Council members doubting the district could finance the golf course, and commissioners accusing the city of not negotiating in good faith.

Asked by City Council member Andrea O’Rourke why the district did not want the city to manage the project, district Commissioner Robert Rollins said, “Because I have greater faith in the district to do the job on time. …”

The district has asked the city to approve the golf course design so the project can be put out for bids. City Manager Leif Ahnell said city staff received the district’s request days before the joint meeting and had not had a chance to analyze it, but would do so shortly.

District Executive Director Briann Harms included with the request a five-year plan to pay for the golf course and five options for phasing it in over the five years. Those options will be reviewed by the National Golf Foundation, which will recommend what it considers the most financially viable of the choices.

“It is a conservative budget,” Harms said. “We can make it work.”

All five options peg the cost of Boca National at about $13.9 million, well below the original $28 million cost that has since been whittled down at the city’s insistence.

The fragile deal between the city and district, forged at a Nov. 12 joint meeting, imploded on Jan. 6 after commissioners saw the city’s draft of an amended agreement between the city and district that spelled out the city’s responsibilities for golf course design, construction and operation.

Commissioners cried foul, contending the draft agreement was one-sided and financially ruinous for the district. They voted unanimously to reject the agreement, cease negotiations with the city and build the golf course themselves, garnering applause from golfers in the audience.

“I could never support the district entering into this kind of agreement that would be so financially harmful to the community,” said Commissioner Craig Ehrnst.

“I am very happy we have a 5-0 vote,” said Chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang. “Now I really have hope. I have confidence we can do it.”

The vote came after golf teaching professional Rick Heard listed problems he saw with the draft agreement, urged commissioners to take back control of the golf course project and suggested ways the district could finance the project on its own.

His long list of objections included the city’s intention to request proposals from golf course architects with the aim of seeing if the city can get a better price or design, even though the district had already spent nearly $1 million on its design after selecting the Nick Price-Tom Fazio team as the best.

But his biggest concern, shared by Harms, was that the city would be able to terminate the agreement for any reason after the golf course construction was completed, after which the costs of operating and maintaining the golf course would be borne by the district.

Harms saw that as very problematic, especially since the city might pick a new golf course architect and design with the district having no veto power over the decision.

The district’s decision to reject the draft agreement surprised city officials, who saw the draft as a starting point for continued negotiations.

“We thought that the district would review the draft document and provide comments and suggested revisions, not simply reject the entire draft document,” Deputy City Manager Mike Woika wrote to Harms.

But the district’s decision to take back the project was reinforced after Harms gave a list of her concerns about the draft agreement to the city at a Jan. 13 meeting. Harms said the district might reconsider its rejection of the draft agreement if the city responded to the concerns.

Woika sent back the draft to the district, but made only one change in a section that he said was not clearly written. The draft was annotated with numerous comments intended to explain or clarify the city’s intentions.

“We did give them a list of our concerns,” Commissioner Steven Engel said at a Jan. 21 district meeting. “Those concerns were basically ignored.”

City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser disputed that at the joint meeting, saying that the district had not said how it wanted to amend the draft agreement. That made it impossible for the city to offer a fuller response, she said.

A key reason the city wanted to take over the project was that district officials told council members at a joint Nov. 12 meeting that they did not have enough money to do the project on their own.

But they now think they can do so without raising the tax rate, provided the course is built over five years and the district postpones some planned park projects to free up money. Golfers told commissioners they did not mind waiting longer for golf course completion.

City officials believe they could complete the course in 18 months to two years.

Although the district will need more time to complete the project, Harms has said a course will be playable within a few years.

The district’s financial position improved after the city returned to the district $2.4 million it had given to the city for park projects, but the city didn’t spend. That boosted the district’s reserve fund to $5.5 million — enough to start the project, Harms said.

The district also could boost its finances if it gets approval to stop making payments to the city to pay off bond debt that financed the construction of Mizner Park. It has asked the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency to relieve it of its payment obligations, which totaled $1.4 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Frieser has told City Council members, who also sit as CRA commissioners, that is possible, but only after completing a process that includes financial reviews, a public hearing and the signing of a new agreement between the city and district.

The City Council also can deny the request. 

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