March 6, 2020 By: Tony Doris — At a 90-minute question-and-answer session to West Palm Beach residents, PGA of America envisioned a project for the old West Palm Beach Golf Course site to be undertaken with philanthropic contributions and without city money.
PGA of America’s proposal to revive West Palm’s closed municipal golf course as a community-oriented, “pure golf” venue, without sacrificing any of it for home-building, drew an overwhelmingly positive reaction this week at its advocates’ first public outreach.
PGA CEO Seth Waugh presented the plan to roughly 200 residents assembled at Forest Hill Community High School, which abuts the 196-acre course.
At the 90-minute question-and-answer session, hosted by City Commissioner Christina Lambert, Waugh envisioned a project undertaken with philanthropic contributions and without city money.
Gil Hanse, a top architect who designed the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf Course, would redesign the West Palm course, and possibly add a par 3 course of at least nine holes, to accommodate a trend toward shorter games, Waugh said.
Other features of interest to the community could be added: a clubhouse big enough to host weddings, for example, and PGA programs for veterans, a junior league, night golfing if not considered too intrusive, and “whatever it is that we think makes sense for us,” he said.
“It’s a little bit of a laboratory for the game, from a public access perspective,” Waugh said. “We want to make it more welcoming, make it look more like the world.”
Residents might pay roughly $40 for a round of golf, while “a hedge fund guy from New York pays $150.”
Despite millions spent to restore the course in 2009, the popular South End facility soon fell into disrepair. The city razed the clubhouse in 2015 and in 2018 chained the property closed to spare maintenance costs while soliciting proposals to bring it back to life. Negotiations with the selected bidders fell through, however.
The most recent proposal, by Texas golf instructor Mike McGetrick did not feature housing. Rather than rely upon construction profits, McGetrick proposed to run the course though a nonprofit foundation, but failed to come up with financing before the city’s deadline expired last November.
Waugh said at Tuesday’s gathering that McGetrick had the right idea, and would likely still play a role in golf instruction at the course, but that PGA of America would take the lead, with the expertise, brand strength and fundraising ability to make the project work.
The facility could reopen as soon as 2022, he estimated.
An angel investor has committed to donate some of the $20 million to $25 million that would be needed to redo the course, and to operate it for several months while it gains its financial footing, Waugh said.
Waugh, who lives in North Palm Beach, is a former Deutsche Bank Americas CEO and former co-head of Global Debt Markets at Merrill Lynch. He took the helm at PGA of America in 2018. The organization, with 29,000 members, owns a number of the top U.S. golf tournaments and runs a youth league, and others to advance minority and female participation in the sport.
PGA of America, whose goal is to grow interest and participation in the game, has been based for more than 50 years in Palm Beach Gardens. It has been housed in a two-building complex adjacent to PGA National Resort since 1981.
It plans to move its headquarters in late 2021 or early 2022 to Frisco, Texas, after getting a land offer it couldn’t resist, Waugh said. But many of its employees will continue to work in Palm Beach County and the organization would like to open a modest-sized Florida regional headquarters at the West Palm course, he said.
The city would continue to own the course, leasing it on a long-term basis to a nonprofit that would oversee its operation. PGA of America would not contribute money but would help raise the money to make the project happen, and would run its programs at the course.
“We’re a 110-year-old institution. We think we bring credibility and our brand to it,” he said. “There’s some execution risk to it. We think we de-risk it a lot by our involvement.
“I think this is the right thing to do and that’s why we’re doing it. We get nothing out of this, other than the fact that there’s a wonderful golf course doing wonderful things.”
The reception from the mayor and city commissioners has been positive, he added. “I believe they are very intrigued.”
Waugh’s presentation drew applause, and praise from many residents, including former City Commissioner Shanon Materio, who heads the South End Neighborhood Association.
“I love the idea and many people in our community love the idea. I just wanted to say thank you,” life-long resident Dana Herst, president of the Dreher Park Neighborhood Association told Waugh.
Residents asked how long the project would take. A Forest Hill senior asked that consideration be given to providing the crowded school additional parking spaces.
Another resident wanted to know how long the long-term lease would be. Probably 99, maybe 50 years, to sway investors to contribute, Waugh replied.
Another asked how much the city and county would have to contribute. “The number is zero,” Waugh replied. The city is contributing by leasing the land “and may actually have some revenues,” he said.
As the property’s south side borders the C-51 canal, one resident requested that clubhouse be built by the water, with a restaurant.
At a mayor-commission work session in January, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James acknowledged the offer but said other companies also would be invited to submit proposals.
The statement came in the wake of scalding criticism in recent months, after the city awarding an $8 million security guard contract without bidding, to a company whose regional director socialized with James and other West Palm officials. Amid the controversy, the city rescinded the contract and now is selecting from among 15 competing firms.
At least one development group continues to solicit commission interest in its own golf course proposal, one that previously stalled in negotiations. Its combination of home sales along the course, and land lease payments to the city make it financially realistic and sustainable, they’ve said.
South End residents have made it clear they’d prefer to see the course, a fixture in the area for decades, be revived without housing, however.
One source familiar with the preliminary talks with PGA of America said the city might not feel compelled to offer the course revitalization work to companies other than PGA of America, on the basis that competitors already had their chance.
“If this is about development, we’re not your guys,” Waugh told residents Tuesday, arguing that the golf course would become an afterthought if housing was developed alongside it.
PGA of America would like people to see the course as a park, where they could walk dogs, or hold a farmer’s market on driving range once a week, Waugh said. It would be part of the community and not just a golf course, he said.
“For us, this is a mission of love. We don’t have any financial victory here for us. We want you all to view it as, you own it.”