County may try to salvage ‘green’ if golf course hits financial rough

Local golfers don’t want Spessard Holland Golf Course messed with, or privatized. And they definitely don’t want it shut down.

From the putting green at the picturesque course just south of the Melbourne Beach town limits, golfers can see the Indian River on one side and, with a little craning of the neck, the ocean on the other side. Few courses in Florida can match such a view. But according to a study done for the county commission by a South Beaches consultant, the view may not be enough to keep the county-owned course attracting the golfers necessary to keep from losing money.

The 2018 budget projections in the report by Greg Christovich, of Christovich & Associates, show an operating loss of $537,000 without any capital improvements for Spessard Holland and two county courses, The Habitat in Grant-Valkaria, and The Savannahs on Merritt Island.

In his report, Christovich said “the capital investment required to upgrade these courses, coupled with the downside risk of decreasing demand for golf, are prohibitive to any future stability, even for Spessard Holland. We would suggest marketing the interest in the courses at a price of somewhere between $1.25 and $1.5 million, as-is, where-is, all cash and a closing prior to year-end.”

According to Christovich, Spessard Holland has the highest market value of the three course in terms of a sale to a private entity or individual. “The golf course is in relatively good condition, is in a decent location and in a balanced competitive marketplace. It maintains a reasonably stable market share, an established brand, and loyal following. Spessard Holland has the highest number of annual pass holders and discount cardholders of the three.”

With average annual revenues of $925,000 – $1.1 million when including food and beverage – the course should fetch in the $850,000 range.

Mark Neubauer and Kirk Heath hope the course stays open. It’s one of their favorites if for no other reason than it’s close to their winter homes in the South Beaches. “We play here at least once a week,” Neubauer said after playing the front nine last Friday and relaxing in the snack bar adjacent to the pro shop.

The two men turned in respectable scores: 35 for Neubauer and 41 for Heath. They planned to tackle the back nine on the short par-67 Arnold Palmer-designed links Saturday.

“This is a beautiful course,” Neubauer said

Said Heath, “I agree this is a special place.”

The decline at the county courses reflects what’s happening nationwide. Christovich said the number of golfers in the U.S. has declined by nearly 24 percent since 2003, and over 5 percent in the last two years alone. Courses have closed at a rate of close to 200 per year. On top of that, Brevard County has 25 public-access golf courses inside its borders. Neubauer and Heath acknowledged there was no wait time to play the front nine last Friday despite a sunny, pleasant day.

Spessard Holland, named after a 1940s Florida governor and war hero, has seen a faster decline in rounds played than the other two, from 47,371 in fiscal year 2010 to 34,819 in fiscal year 2017, with a further decline predicted in the coming year. Still, the report said those who live beachside don’t like to go over the bridge if they don’t have too, and the perception is that Aquarina is too far south on A1A. “That said, the market is extremely price sensitive and the Spessard Holland clientele – mainly senior retired – are bargain-shoppers.”

Revenue at Spessard Holland exceeded expenses from 2011 to 2016, a claim the other two courses could not make. But Christovich predicted that would not be the case this year.

In an interview last week, golfer Gail Myers of South Beaches brought out an essential element not part of most other county-owned activities: “I pay to play and I play quite a bit.”

Myers chooses Spessard Holland on many a day.  “I also participate in a lot of women’s tournaments,” Myers testified before the commission on Oct. 24. “There are a lot of women golfers. Lot of high school students, too.”

Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to table the discussion for 60 days, with John Tobia voting to take immediate action to get out of the golf course business. “I did not know we are losing money,” said Tobia, whose district includes Spessard Holland. “Our recreational parks are losing money but they do not have competition.”

When it comes to Spessard Holland, a deed restriction requiring the land to remain a park of some type clouds the decision.

Jeff Fern of Grant has other ideas. A frequent golfer at Spessard Holland, Fern told the commission he’d like to help save the course. “There are solutions,” he said.

“I think the consultant did an awesome job. He gave the worst-case scenario. The county can come out whole and not lose $500,000. There’s a win-win deal. I could buy all three. But the last thing do is convert it into a for-profit situation. Golf is not dying. But you need to get young people involved. Offer free golf.”

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