Golfers puzzled by county’s decision to bail on MelBeach course

Indialantic resident Bob Cook, golfing last week at the Spessard Holland Golf Course in Melbourne Beach, could recall playing there when the course first opened in the 1980s.

And he questions why the Brevard County Commission wants to abandon the scenic course – or at least give up running it. Designed by golf legend Arnold Palmer, Spessard Holland is often described as a gem between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon.

“I don’t understand why the county wants out of the business,” the 77-year-old Cook said, taking a break between swings.

County commissioners in 2015 acknowledged the county was losing money, not only at Spessard Holland, but also at the county’s two other courses, The Habitat in Grant-Valkaria and The Savannahs on Merritt Island, when former Parks Director Jack Masson pointed to an operating loss of $129,500 in the recent year.

Since then, county officials have been looking to either sell the courses or find someone who can operate them without losses.

Commissioners recently agreed to revert The Savannahs ownership back to the Savannahs at Sykes Creek Homeowners Association Inc. And on April 24, they are scheduled to consider a final agreement to have Golf Brevard, a prospective nonprofit group, lease and operate Spessard Holland and The Habitat.

Ron Marsch, 75, one of the Golf Brevard steering committee members, helped golfers from their cars last week and into golf carts. A retired mechanical engineer from New Jersey, Marsch started volunteering at Spessard Holland seven years ago. He said Golf Brevard looks to begin operation by Nov. 1. He said Golf Brevard will hire a Professional Golf Association golf pro to run the county’s two southern courses.

Cook, meanwhile, stressed he had no problem with Golf Brevard. Its leaders are golf enthusiasts and business executives. “But when you say you’re losing say $50,000 a year, that doesn’t seem like a lot when you also have recreational beaches, boat docks and everything else,” he said.

After all, he added, he doesn’t hear Melbourne city officials complain about losing money at their Mallard’s Landing or Crane Creek Reserve courses. “But (Golf Brevard) will hang in there, try to do it, and keep (Spessard Holland) open. So that part I don’t mind,” he said.

Other golfers, meanwhile, had mixed reactions to the deal being hammered out with Golf Brevard. Some hailed it, citing former county-hired managers’ own rocky history, while others chose to wait and see.

Starr Brinckerhoff, 77, a snowbird from northern Vermont, is spending his sixth winter in Melbourne Beach after retiring 10 years ago from the investment business. He golfs every Friday morning at Spessard Holland with a neighborhood group. “We’ll have people deeply committed to preserving this absolute asset,” he said. “This will benefit the entire area.”

For instance, he said, Golf Brevard will tackle work that the county has deferred in recent years, most significantly a $110,000 replacement of the main irrigation pumping station.

Turning Spessard Holland into a county park, one early suggestion, wouldn’t bring the county any revenue, he said, while it would still require spending on maintaining the property.

Kathy Thompson, 63, a retired Michigan postal clerk, said she used to visit her parents in the area in the late 1990s. Her father worked the snack bar at Aquarina Beach and Country Club, a for-profit business farther south.

But she said she chose Spessard Holland because “it’s cheaper. Despite what Aquarina says.”

But it needs work, she said. Golf Brevard has tallied $203,000 worth of needed upgrades, including the irrigation system. “Integrity didn’t do such a horrible job,” she said. “I think Golf Brevard can do a better job. This is a unique course, it’s so beautiful.”

Thompson referred to Orlando’s Integrity Golf Co. LLC, to which the county leased its courses in January 2016. The pact was to have yielded at least $100,000 a year for the county, but Integrity bailed in July saying it, too, was losing money on the courses.

But Bob Stewart, 77, a golfer from Indialantic, still wasn’t too sure about Golf Brevard. The county kept Spessard Holland in “excellent condition,” he said. And despite Golf Brevard’s enthusiasm and its individual leaders’ pedigrees, he said, he questions its finances.

Golf Brevard will catch up to deferred maintenance, he agreed, but only after the county sets up a transition fund between $250,000 and $390,000.

“They’re nice people and everything, but I just don’t think they have the finances to make it work,” Stewart said. “I question that.”

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