Supplied with additional appraisals from staff, the Wellington Village Council was not ready Tuesday to decide on whether to purchase the Binks Forest Golf Club and how to accomplish a possible purchase.
The council reviewed the appraisals and considered its options, which included suggestions of public/private partnerships and a general agreement that it was not urgent for the village to step in immediately.
The owners of the Binks Forest course offered it to the village for sale before turning to private investors.
Director of Operations Jim Barnes said that the village had received two appraisals on the property in addition to the owners’ appraisal by Callaway & Price of $3.6 million.
The village’s appraisals came in at $2.7 million by S.F. Holden Inc. and $3.55 million by Anderson & Carr. A $3 million purchase price has been discussed, but several council members feel that is too high.
Wellington’s staff evaluation was based on operating the property as a public golf course, although alternative uses were discussed, such as making the property a passive park.
Councilman Matt Willhite asked what came with a potential acquisition, and Barnes said that in addition to the approximately 200-acre course, there is the clubhouse and its auxiliary buildings, and a swimming pool with its equipment. However, a detailed inventory has not been done by staff, although the appraisals had included details of the inventory and condition.
Public comment was roughly divided between people in favor of the acquisition and those opposed.
Resident Bobby Munden said he thought purchasing the course would be a bad decision, noting that since 2006, more golf courses have closed than opened. He added that the Binks Forest course is in poor condition and suggested that it would cost more than the $750,000 estimated by staff to bring it up to par.
Rocky Okin of Oak Chase Court said his main reason for purchasing a home there was the golf course.
“I believe it is a great asset,” Okin said, pointing out that people in the neighborhoods suffered when the course and clubhouse were in foreclosure before new owners bought it several years ago.
Resident Vince Weber said that he would prefer a private investment and would be willing to raise a group that would negotiate and enter into a lease agreement for the property.
“The building is in terrible shape,” Weber said. “The swimming pool needs a complete overhaul.”
He also said that the course itself needs a complete overhaul. “I recommend leaving it to private investment,” Weber said.
Binks Estates resident Morley Alperstein pointed out that the course was designed by Johnny Miller and had once been named one of the top 75 golf courses by Golf Digest magazine. He disagreed with others who said that the main building and swimming pool needed renovation, contending that they were “in great condition.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said that the village needs a plan if it wants to consider purchasing the course.
“We need public input,” she said, pointing out that a thorough assessment of the course and its facilities is needed to make a good decision, and that a possible acquisition is not a need for the village.
Gerwig asked about the deed restrictions on the land, questioning whether they could consider alternative uses, such as a nine-hole course and a park.
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that the deed restriction is for the village and cannot be enforced by any third party, but a referendum would be needed to change the use.
Vice Mayor John Greene said he saw potential in purchasing the course but also felt that a public/private cooperative, possibly with the neighboring residents, would be appropriate.
“I do believe that there is some value in municipal golf courses,” Greene said. “I’m a fan, and I think it’s a great pastime.”
He also pointed out that the village had just spent millions of dollars on a new tennis facility and that part of the council’s responsibility is to provide recreational amenities for residents.
Greene added that if the course were to close, surrounding residents stood to lose 20 percent of their home value.
He added that the village recently had an opportunity to purchase an unused course at the Wanderers Club, which he favored, but he did not get council support.
“The [Binks Forest] principals are fine people and run it as business,” he said. “Everybody knows this is for sale. It’s a great course and has tremendous potential, if the private sector wants to step up. I also sense that there isn’t a sense of urgency. If there are private investors, let them step up and see if they want to make the investment. At this point, I don’t feel it is a bite we want to take.”
He asked staff for more information, including the age of the building. Barnes said the building underwent a major renovation in 2007, and estimated that 35,000 rounds per year would be necessary to approach breaking even.
“My position hasn’t really changed,” Greene said. “I can’t see supporting it at $3 million, especially with renovation costs.”
Willhite recalled that the Binks Forest foreclosure of 10 years ago was one of the biggest issues for Wellington since its inception. “Unfortunately, the same issues always seem to come back,” he said.
While Willhite agreed that there was no sense of urgency, he believes that it is the council’s responsibility to make informed decisions for the residents.
“We bought K-Park, and we will never be in a bad position,” he said. “Parks are amenities that we offer whether a golfer or not. That’s something we have here.”
Willhite added that the acquisition includes the clubhouse and swimming pool, which can both be used as alternative sites when the new community center is booked and when the current village pool is booked for special events.
He said that the estimated 35,000 minimum rounds to break even could be made up by booking the clubhouse and pool.
Willhite also favored a public/private partnership or issuing a bond for the purchase, since the current budget does not include money to buy the course. He pointed out that many municipal courses contract private vendors successfully to run the restaurant and other facilities. For example, the Lake Worth golf course has E.R. Bradley’s successfully running its restaurant.
Willhite added that with 600 homes surrounding the course, he liked the idea of homeowners’ associations being involved, adding that he could conceive of no other use for the property other than as a golf course.
Councilman John McGovern agreed that its use should always be as a golf course, and also that there is no sense of urgency. Like Gerwig, he favored conducting public meetings and formulating a plan.
“I have concerns that we not go back to the days when the course was in disrepair, but it’s not a good investment now,” McGovern said. “While there is concern about the course surviving, it is surviving.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said that he is now left with more questions than answers.
“This is déjà vu all over again,” Margolis said. “The last time around was terrible, with rodents infesting homes.”
He said the current owners had operated the course successfully. “Then something happened,” Margolis said. “The economy was down, and golf was down.”
He was also concerned that membership at the club was down to 25 from 110 at its height.
Margolis said the course was brought back to success on the condition that the village allow townhomes to be built on the former driving range.
“I agree with Councilman Willhite, this cannot be anything other than a golf course,” he said. “The budget does not have dollars to buy it. We need to hear from the public. I’m [also] a believer in having advisory boards chime in.”
Margolis also wanted to hear from golf and food operators. “We have three appraisals,” he said. “I would like to hear from someone proficient in the restaurant business whether that facility is apropos.”
Either way, Margolis said that the village should not be in the business of bailing out businesses. “Right now, today, I’m not in the position to buy a golf course,” he said. “I would like to hear from consultants who have done this before. I’m not saying no, but I want input from the community.”
Greene said he did not want to spend a lot of money on consultants, but Barnes said that most of the research could be done in house.
Greene also suggested looking into a voluntary $5,000 assessment for the 600 surrounding homeowners, which would raise roughly $3 million for the purchase, which he said would be an alternative to homeowners facing a 20 percent loss in home value.