Historic Ponce de Leon Course May Survive

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Lura Readle, Golf Central reporter
 
The endangered Donald Ross-designed Ponce de Leon Golf Course - arguably the oldest and most historic golf course in the state of Florida - got a mulligan of sorts at a City of St. Augustine planning and zoning meeting May 5.
 
As reported Tuesday on Golf Central, the nearly century-old course, which originally had been slated to be closed down immediately after the end of play May 11, will now stay open indefinitely, according to owner/developer Chester Stokes. Stokes is the CEO of Stokes and Company, a highly successful Jacksonville, Fla.-based real estate development/management firm.
 
New developments in negotiations between the city and Stokes prompted the developer to voluntarily table his plans for Madeira at St. Augustine, a 749-unit, upscale housing development that would encompass the 400 acres which the Ponce currently occupies.
 
Back in February, interested parties including the city, St. Johns County, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Audubon Society, Florida Forever, and the local Airport Authority, met to address whether they could combine their efforts to save the property. St. Johns County Commissioner Nicolas Meiszer believed the responsibility would fall squarely on the shoulders of these parties.
 
I believe the course will have to be subsidized, and I mean by the professional golfers and by the environmentalists, and by the people who really want to make a contribution to it., Meiszer said in an interview with Golf Central just before that meeting.
 
But a viable plan could not be fleshed out and attempts completely stalled, with no foreseeable help on the horizon. The waterfront marshland, home to hundred-year-old oaks, nearly a hundred species of waterfowl (some endangered), and breathtaking vistas of the Intracoastal waterway, seemed destined to be plowed up by now all-to-familiar bulldozers in the name of progress. In the words of George Gardner, mayor of St. Augustine, Its another classic case of developer versus preservationist.
 
Citizens of St. Augustine and beyond - golfers and non-golfers alike - would not let the issue die. So last month, pressed on by the members of Save the Ponce - a group formed to do just that - Gardner initiated a resolution, soundly passed by city officials, to support any and all efforts to acquire the Ponce de Leon property.
 
Unfortunately, for a city registering only 20,000 residents in the 2000 census, that price is rather high. Stokes has often stated that if someone were to come up with a valid offer, somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.5 million (plus an additional $3 million for some sorely needed renovations), he would seriously consider parting with that portion of his prospected development. Until just recently, that figure and the fact that public funds would almost certainly have to be tapped was a major sticking point for both the city and the county. According to Meiszer, Too many people will look at it purely as a business deal and I know enough about finance that, if all you look at is the financing, this in not going to work.
 
But efforts have been redoubled, spurred on in large part by Christopher H. Toby Smith, a concerned lawyer/merchant banker and the Save the Ponce group. After seeing a three-part feature which aired on Golf Central last February, Smith, a long-time resident of St. Johns County, immediately went to work obtaining copies of the feature to present to private investors in hopes of saving the course.
 
As time progressed, Smith realized that privatization, while extremely possible, was not the optimum solution for the Ponce and the community. The best solution, in his opinion, is for the course to remain in the possession of the public. So Smith, utilizing a great deal of his own funds, gathered together a group of professionals focused on achieving that very goal. The key members of that group: attorney Emerson Lotzia with the law firm Foley Lardner, landscape architect Fred Halback, and KMPG, an international accounting and business advising firm. With their help, and the help of countless volunteers, every possible avenue was investigated and a way was found in which the property could be purchased without using a cent of city funds.
 
On Monday, May 6th, another meeting, crucial to the continued existence of the Ponce, was held in the office of city manager Bill Harris. In the marathon 12-hour session, Smith, Lotzia, Stokes, Harris, and Gardner started to hammer out the details of two imminently workable plans.
 
The most attractive one to all interested parties is where the golf course property would ultimately be owned and operated by the City of St. Augustine - incidentally the oldest city in the United States. This plan would utilize a $6.6 million in Florida Community Trust dollars to buy up the acreage the course sits on, essentially creating a Community Redevelopment Area, or CDA. The city would have to come up with a 25 percent match, roughly $1.65 million, which Smith's group and Save the Ponce feel confident could be obtained through intense fundraising efforts. The purchase depends on the raising of these monies. Gardner and other city officials have said that no city funds will be earmarked for this endeavor.
 
Stokes tabled his development in order to give the city more time to enter into a free option to purchase the course by Oct. 31. One caveat: if the city does pursue this course of action but then decides that it cannot meet the deadline to buy, Smith could then pick up the option. If it comes to that, the course would then have to be privatized - in other words, become a private club, with dues covering the cost of operation. 'But that is only a last resort. All my time and energy is going into a public solution, Smith says.
 
At the St. Augustine city commissioners meeting May 12, Smith and Halback presented their vision for making all this a reality.
 
The resulting response was a resolution presented by Mayor Gardner and passed 5-0 by the commission which will start the process of acquiring the grant from the FCT, establish the CRA, negotiate further with Stokes, and then schedule a special meeting to evaluate the deal before the next planning and zoning meeting on June 3.
 
Of course, there are some concerns from the members of the commission. In a story posted by today by the St. Augustine Record, Don Crichlow, whose father once caddied for President Warren G. Harding, was quoted as stating, 'The plan is a wonderful proposal. But we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we don't consider the financial ramifications to our city,' he said.
 
'We are buying a golf course so (Stokes) can build $1 million homes on the property, while we will maintain it to his standards.' Susan Burk, also quoted in the Record, added, 'It sounds like we're footing the bill for a very exclusive golf course. I hope that doesn't happen.'
 
The vision for the project involves rebuilding the original rustic clapboard clubhouse adjacent to the first tee and restoring the course to the original routing designed and constructed by Donald Ross in 1918.
 
Golf course architect Bobby Weed, who got his golfing sea legs working at the course in his teens, has a frayed, time-yellowed blueprint of the original plans and is already on board with the proposed project. 'We could return this course to it's original routing very easily,' Weed told Golf Central in February. His belief is that if this piece of golf and Florida history is lost, it would be 'irreplaceable.'
 
That plan presents a problem though. Stokes is loath to part with two key pieces of property, marsh-front acreage along which the sixth and seventh holes would lie, which would be essential in restoring the course 100 percent to the original routing.
 
If Stokes were to agree to the requests of those trying to restore the course back to the original routing, he would, in return, get up to $7.5 million dollars in federal tax credits and considerably more acreage would be dedicated to Madeira of St. Augustine, which would then contain 550 lots, down only 199 lots from the original design. The tax credits was something that Chester didnt even know about and still couldnt believe once KMPG told him, Smith told The Golf Channel.
 
This morning, Smith acknowledged that he is 'highly confident that if reason prevails on both sides an accepted acquisition price can be reached and the Ponce de Leon will continue operation.' Smith, whose wife also is a big supporter of all the efforts to save her beloved course, jokingly says his domestic bliss depends upon that successful resolution.
 
But all kidding aside, while the future of this historic course is looking rosier, many variables continue to jeopardize its existence. The developments of the past month have, for now, allowed the Ponce to play on. Toby Smith and his group have put those wheels in motion. It is now up to all involved parties, city officials, Chester Stokes, and the community, to make that a permanent thing.
 
For more information, contact Lura Readle lreadle@tgcinc.com