GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Don’t look for Clay County government to get into the golf business in the future.
Responding to the recent closure of the Country Club of Orange Park’s golf course and other amenities, Clay County commissioners Tuesday decided against looking at the idea of the county government purchasing the club’s amenities and basically making them a part of the county’s park system.
A motion made by Wayne Bolla, the commissioner in whose district the Orange Park Country Club lies, to fund a $7,500 feasibility study of purchasing the club’s golf and other amenities such as the tennis courts and clubhouse, died for lack of a second.
While expressing sympathy for the homeowners at OPCC and the adjoining Loch Raine development, all the county commissioners except Bolla said they didn’t think owning a golf club was a function in which the county government should become a part.
“I’m sympathetic to the plight of the folks there in OPCC. I live in a golf course community,” said Mike Cella, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners.
In fact, he said, he’d spent 12 years on his Community Development District board there, each year warning others that the golf course could eventually be in monetary trouble. But never once, he said, did he expect the county government to get involved if there were problems.
“It’s our problem, we’ll fix it,” was always his attitude he said.
Cella also said purchasing OPCC’s golf course could open the door to other courses that might start having trouble, and such ownership would also put the county into competition with other taxpayers such as food and drink vendors who “pay a lot of taxes to us” to run their business, something that didn’t “sit well with him.”
“We are not a county that can subsidize losses,” he said. “We’re not high-powered investors here. We don’t have capitol money to spend.”
Commissioner Gayward Hendry agreed.
“This is a heartbreaking situation,” he said, but added, “I can’t justify in my own mind spending money to make this unit whole when we’ve got so many other things in the county that the citizens are looking at us to provide.”
The whole issue came about rather quickly and unexpectedly when the golf course and other amenities were closed at the end of February. The 18-hole course, which sits on 382 acres and backs up to an Audubon bird sanctuary, the 20,000 square-foot clubhouse and eight tennis courts are included in the amenities. A swimming pool and cabana are owned by the OPCC Home Owners Association and remain open.
Between Loch Raine and OPCC, which both sit behind one gated entrance, about 1,000 homes can be found.
Bolla said he was contacted by John McCormack, president of the OPCC homeowners association about the plight of the golf course and the possible role the county might be able to play in it.
Saying the old formula for “”building an upscale community” was to put in a golf course, build out around it and “hopefully when it was done building somebody would step up and continue to run the golf course or make it a mandatory part of the association dues.” But he added, what has happened at OPCC is quite different.
“The present owner has walked away from operations and it’s sitting there dormant,” he said.
That gives him several concerns. One is the potential drop in the property value of his constituents who live there, which are expected to drop at least 20 percent to 25 percent, and the subsequent loss in property tax revenue to the county, estimated at about $600,000 a year.
Bolla also mentioned that most counties around Clay County, except for Baker County, have a public golf course. He could see the potential of making some money from purchasing the course and basically making it a part of the county’s park system, which is pretty much geared toward the youth of the county, while there is little for adult entertainment.
The county has spent “millions” on parks for youth sports and then “give them away for a dollar a year to somebody to operate.”
Here was an opportunity to make some money due to the assets involved, he said.
McCormack was among several residents of OPCC and Loch Raine who appeared at the Tuesday BCC meeting. He listed some of the amenities that could be beneficial to the county, including owning he golf course itself, creating jobs, converting some tennis courts to the popular pickleball and even using the clubhouse as an outreach for culinary skills for a place such as St. Johns River Community College.
“I would sure hate to see it go fallow,” he said of the course.
Like others who appeared, he said time was of the essence to keep the greens from going into such disrepair it would be incredibly difficult to restore them.
David Miller said the golf course is a “perishable item,” and has not been mowed in 15 days. Another 60 to 90 days could make a huge difference.
“Time is of the essence more than anything,” he said.
Among others speaking, Charles More, president of the Loch Raine homeowners association, called the course a “diamond in the rough” while Mark Blakewood, an OPCC resident and longtime golf consultant, said the course and amenities would probably sell for “pennies on the dollar.”
“You’ve got a unique opportunity to pick up a first-class facility, again, for pennies on the dollar,” he said.
Golf courses have faced some tough times lately with changing attitudes toward it. More than 200 courses like OPCC’s closed last year nationwide, said McCormack. Some attribute the problems to a lack of interest in the sport from the millennials vs. the baby boom generation, among other things.
According to the March issue of the OPCC/Loch Raine newsletter, the course and amenities are owned by James Anthony Price III and Shasta Price and are for sale.
The Jacksonville-based 121 Financial Credit Union holds the note on the property, and Paul B. Blackstone, chief strategies officer, appeared at the Tuesday meeting and gave a brief statement, saying 121 was “in the process of doing our due diligence” in the matter of the Country Club of Orange Park. Blackstone said his group would be giving more information as it became available.
“This is obviously early in this process for us as well,” he said, adding, “It was just right for us to be here and represent that we’re part of the community and happy to be involved.”
Commissioner Diane Hutchins suggested that part of the 382 acres on which the golf course lies could be converted to space for more homes.
“That’s what a lot of golf courses are doing to survive,” she said.
But McCormack said that would be tough to do at OPCC because of the Planned Unit Development that exists. Changing that would be difficult due to things like nearby Blanding Boulevard, which is already over capacity.
For his part, Bolla said he had hoped to get a feasibility study the county would own and could use for other entities interested in purchasing the course. A “knight in shining armor” who might come along to buy the course would be great, he said.
Remaining county commissioners said they would be happy to give other types of help to OPCC, but not purchasing it or paying for a feasibility study.
McCormack said he was “disappointed” in the outcome of the meeting, but added, “I understand it.” The next step will be to see what the lenders are going to do.
In the meantime, he said, “I guess I will just cut the grass behind my house that used to be the golf course.”