An Update on the Delray Beach Municipal Golf Course

The City’s municipal golf course is not only a haven for golfers but a nature preserve, a public open space, the source of much of our drinking water, and a historic site.  But over the last ten years it has fallen on hard times due to lack of maintenance and upkeep. Golf courses require restoration every 25 years or so just like parks because things grow, spread, wash away, or deteriorate in the sun.

When Donald Ross (one of America’s greatest golf architects) designed the course and Gene Sarazen and Beth Danielson (two of the greatest professional golfers) played the course, it was a municipal jewel. It was on Florida’s Historic Golf Trail, and it ranked as among the 100 best municipal golf courses in the country.  The roomy club house in the middle of the course also serves as an affordable venue for innumerable Delray activities including service clubs, bar mitzvahs, weddings, fund raisers, and family anniversaries.

The Delray Beach City Commission tried to find a solution for the worn-out golf course and ultimately pursued a Public Private Partnership (PPP): a creative approach to raising funds without raising taxes.  It is a strategy used all over the country to build public facilities financed by private development.  In this case, the City issued a Request for Proposal and received 6 proposals from recognized national firms. In return for buying or leasing roughly 10% of the golf property, the developers proposed to build a combination of multifamily units, commercial rentals, or a hotel.  The sums received by the City would pay for the restoration and maintenance of the golf course.

Residents, however, were not pleased. They noted the loss of open space and traffic generated. They challenged the possibility of fitting all that development into the space and still leave room for a golf course. Most observers, including the Commission, agreed that Delray residents, especially those closest to the course, had not been adequately consulted.  The City mounted a public information campaign at the last minute, but it was too late. In public meetings, some of which were quite raucous, the citizens made their voices heard.

So the City Commission graciously backed down, apologized to the proposers and the residents, and asked the public to generate suggestions for moving forward. Citizen involvement has generally been accepted as “the Delray way” where all stakeholders weigh in to express their creative ideas. A citizens’ group headed by former Mayor Jay Alperin, a self-described duffer, will likely lead the effort.  It will include citizens knowledgeable in water management, historians, financial analysts, open space advocates, educators, and a golf architect. The group should finish its work in six months and then present recommendations to the Commission.  The proposed revenue package will likely include private donations, increased golf fees, grants, a profitable club house, revenue bonds paid by fees, and other creative funding ideas.

It is unclear how long it will take to restore the course to its former glory and equally unclear whether some portion will be playable throughout the planning and construction phases.  Other issues to consider are the status of the clubhouse (should it be bigger, should it be an upscale restaurant) or what other activities could safely be incorporated in the property.  What will be the fee structure?  How do we get students involved (Atlantic High is just across the street)?
The City has been researching grants from the Donald Ross Foundation, accepted the recommendation of the Delray Beach Historical Trust to designate the course an historical site, and agreed to hold a workshop with the citizen’s task force to discuss options for moving forward. Cooperative planning between the City and its citizens should result in an outstanding plan for restoration.  In the meantime, "Support the Muni" by playing the course. Frequently. It’s one of the best cost-reward deals in town.

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