Martin County Commission adds $3 million to municipal golf course pot for clubhouse and hitting bays  

STUART – The Martin County Commission voted unanimously Nov. 10 to adopt the revised capital infrastructure project sheet for the ongoing refurbishing of the Sailfish Sands municipal golf course, which includes an additional $3 million for the new clubhouse and 20 internal hitting bays.  

Office of Management and Budget Director Jennifer Manning introduced the item as part of her list of items needing approval by the Board, which normally don’t see much commissioner debate. The Board had directed staff during its Oct. 27 meeting to bring the item back with details on how the county could fund the additional cost of the $8-million project.  

“There was a supplemental that was presented to the Board with a description of all the additional funding sources that will help with the additional costs that will not exceed $3 million,” she said. “Those funding sources includes interest that goes over and above that which was budgeted; the state revenue sharing that came in higher than budgeted; the early separation program that provided funding; the tax collector year-end fees that was over what we budgeted; and the Hurricane Mathew reimbursement for the General Fund.”  

Two members of the public spoke out on the issue during the latest meeting, one in favor and one against the CIP sheet increase. Jensen Beach resident Tom Pine continued the opposition he originally expressed during the October meeting and referred to the golf course modernization as part of the ongoing “Browardization of Martin County.”  

“The latest boondoggle is the new Martin County golf course,” he said referred to the municipal course recently rebaptized as Sailfish Sands. “While golf has been in decline for over a decade, it appears Martin County has decided to revitalize the sport of golf on the backs of we the taxpayers. At present, the estimated cost is over $8 million, [and] it has every single bell and whistle known to mankind. This will lead some local golf clubs in Martin County to shut their doors after this boondoggle is complete because money doesn’t grow on trees for private businesses like it does for Martin County government.”  

After Ms. Manning concluded her brief presentation on the request as part of a list of several other items, Commissioner Sarah Heard – who only two years ago voted against funding a new clubhouse – made the motion to approve the revised CIP sheet, which was seconded by Commissioner Doug Smith and passed unanimously. Shortly afterwards, Stuart resident and local golf professional Frank McChrystal walked into the meeting late and offered his belated support, while attempting to debunk the opposing comments expressed by Mr. Pine.  

“To the public listening out there in TV land, we are not competing against Mariner Sands and Willoughby,” he said. “When this project is done, we will compete viciously with the other public courses in the county, especially during the summertime when everything west of U.S. 1 is swampland.”  

Mr. McChrystal went on to further explain his motivation for backing the multimillion refurbishment of the county’s municipal golf course.  

“Mr. Pine, you more than anyone should know that a successful Sailfish [Sands] is the ground zero defense against airport expansion,” he said. “That’s why I got involved, and we saved the Blue & Gold Course from the airport interests that wanted that 54 acres. This golf course – this whole project – was a unanimous 5-0 decision to go forward. Is the way it’s turning out perfect now? No, it’s going to take time, but over all in the end, the community will benefit: not just from golf, but from the physical barrier that prevents Witham Field from expanding.”  

The actual Commission discussion on Parks & Recreation Director Kevin Abbate’s $3-million CIP request occurred in the previous meeting after he provided an update on the course renovation and admitted his funding sources had run short on the three-phase project. He took commissioners through a slideshow presentation of the completed Phase 1 work, which includes three new restrooms and cutting-edge mobile range technology for the driving range, one of the “bells and whistles” referred to by Mr. Pine. Mr. Abbate believes the novel program will triple the buckets of balls sold by the course in the future.  

“As a user of the golf course, you simple have to have a cell phone and download the app,” he said. “The guest only has to purchase a bucket of balls. The mobile range, what it does, the golfer will come out, it will track all of their data, the speed of their ball, the distance, all the data that golfers would love to have but can only have in an indoor simulated range. So, this will be a public range that will allow the golfers to come in and improve their swing through technology.”  

Another unique after-hours addition, the Glow Gear Ball Range, is expected to both draw interest from younger golfers and increase play after sunset on the 13-acre driving range.  

“This is another revenue opportunity to get clubs in the hands of kids and families in the evening hours where they hit a UV-painted real golf ball on the range to maximize the revenue opportunity on this driving range,” he explained. “Between the golf ball-tracing technology and the Glow Gear Range, combined income will go from $40,000 to just about $250,000 a year, and I’m using some pretty conservative numbers.”  

In addition, the former Red and White Course at the facility has also been transformed in Phase 1 into a reversible nine-hole course aimed at younger or newer golfers.  

“It’s the only one in Florida, which has five tees per hole, and those tees are designed for kids and families,” Mr. Abbate added. “It also acts as a Regulation 9 Golf Course.”  

Phase 2 of the project includes the parking lot – whose bid award was also approved Nov. 10 – as well as new lighting, landscaping and golf cart paths. Phase 3 work includes the new 5,500 square-foot clubhouse and pergola featuring a full-service bar and dining room and 20 climate-controlled hitting bays with golf ball tracing technology. Each hitting bay will be furnished with a couch, television and dining table. While Mr. Abbate believes the hitting bays will be popular with golfers and non-golfers alike and contribute up to $2.7-million in additional annual revenue, he admitted his budgeting shortfall came here.  

“This project is an $8 million project all-in,” he said. “With the funds that we have remaining, we still have a shortfall of $2,592,515 without contingency, and the premise of this presentation is to seek appropriate funding strategies to complete the bid process and construction of the 100-percent-designed clubhouse and hitting bays not to exceed $3 million.”  

Commissioner Sarah Heard, who also made the motion for approval Oct. 27, attempted to explain the county’s strategy for attracting a new generation of golfers but did not address her change of heart on the clubhouse.  

“We made a decision to eliminate nine holes of play and redesign nine holes of play and to take a look at the whole property with always an eye upon sustainability,” she said. “We also knew in order for this project to remain viable for the next 30 years, we were going to have to attract new users and new golfers. Mr. Abbate did a lot of wide-ranging research and found out that virtual golf and video games were the perfect introduction for young people to the game of golf. So, these changes he’s proposing are necessary to modernize this facility.”  

That motion subsequently passed 4-1, with Commissioner Stacey Hetherington dissenting on the grounds that Mr. Abbate would be asking to increase the CIP sheet on the final postponed renovations on the Blue and Gold Course by $900,000 early next year.

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