Renovation of historic golf course mired in red tape

VERO BEACH — When long-time Vero Beach resident M.J. Wicker approached City Manager Jim Gabbard a few weeks ago about refurbishing the Dodgertown Golf Club, he thought he could strike a simple gentleman’s agreement with the City of Vero Beach to accomplish the goal.

The city, which has also heard from another group looking to take over the nine-hole golf course, responded by re-opening the bid process and publishing a 90-page request for proposal, requiring site plans, water management studies and a plethora of technical data.

 

Wicker, his frustration showing at a recent council meeting, seemed flabbergasted that bringing a golf course back online would be so mired in government red tape. Holding the thick bid packet given to him by the city, Wicker shook his head in dismay.

“This asks for site plans and water management plans, all we want to do is bring the Dodgertown Golf Club back to what it was. Shouldn’t these things already exist?” Wicker asked from the podium, getting no response from council or staff. “This doesn’t have to be so complicated.”

Wicker said he represents his own family and some older members of the community who were his “childhood mentors,” who remember playing the course and also hearken back to the days when the big-name players of L.A. Dodgers frequented the links of Dodgertown between baseball games during many decades of spring training.

“Losing the Dodgers was huge,” Wicker said, adding that he wants to give Vero Beach’s young people a chance to play — at the traditionally affordable price — the same golf course that sports legends walked for years. Wicker called it Vero’s “field of dreams.”

Gabbard had said at the council’s April 20 meeting that the RFP was necessary to make the expectations clear to prospective bidders, and to convey information regarding the “level of service” the city would expect from the facility, if restored and re-opened.

Another reason for the layers of paperwork is that the city is not the sole entity with a stake in the course. The city owns about 36 acres and leases another nine acres from the Board of County Commissioners for $1 per year.

On top of that, Minor League Baseball — which has expressed interest in building a cloverleaf of tournament-grade softball fields and soccer facilities on part of what is now the golf course — has long-established parking rights for certain portions of the course.

“They routinely used the first hole for overflow parking,” Gabbard said Tuesday during the council meeting.

All three entities would need to sign off on any plan to re-establish golf operations, at a time when funds are very tight and the county is trying to eke out more revenue from its own recreation facilities at the fairgrounds park area — which already offers tournament soccer fields.

In April, commissioners directed County Administrator Joe Baird and its parks staff to have multiple events and activities booked on the fairgrounds fields and in the buildings “every day of the year,” as Commissioner Wesley Davis put it.

There is also at least one other party interested in undertaking the renovation, according to Gabbard. The Wadsworth Foundation has a track record of historic golf course restoration and thinks they can obtain nearly $250,000 in grant money to complete the project.

Though the foundation has not submitted anything in writing, its representatives have spoken to city staff, taken a site visit and sent a consultant to walk the grounds of the now-defunct course.

It was unclear after Tuesday’s city council meeting what the city’s next steps would be. Though he was permitted to speak during the public comment portion at the beginning of the meeting, Wicker was not allowed to respond to comments made by council members when the issue came back up under the city manager’s matters.

Councilman Brian Heady said the city should be open to creative ideas, ideas that might be squelched by a formal RFP process.

“I think we should just let people know that we have a golf course and that we want to do something with it,” Heady said.

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