The Palm Harbor Golf Club will remain under the management of Kemper Sports for up to three years, despite the company’s history of six-digit deficits with the course over the past several years.
The Palm Coast City Council voted 3-1 in its regular, Sept. 2 meeting to keep the course under Kemper’s management, but with an escape clause that would let it end the contract early if the company doesn’t meet expectations. Kemper will also continue to manage the city tennis center.
Councilman Bill Lewis, who has missed a number of recent meetings due to an extended illness, was not present for the vote, and Councilman Jason DeLorenzo was the single vote against the motion to keep the course under Kemper’s management.
Before the motion for Kemper, DeLorenzo had motioned to approve a contact with competing firm Billy Casper Golf. His motion died for lack of a second.
The council’s decision to remain with Kemper ran counter to the recommendations of city staff, who ranked Casper Golf as the top choice and suggested the city negotiate a contract with that company, which already runs more than 70 municipal courses, including nine in Florida, according to Palm Coast Parks and Recreation Director Luanne Santangelo. A third firm, Down To Earth Golf, was also considered, but didn’t rank as highly as Casper.
Councilmen had pointed questions for representatives of Casper Golf who showed up to give a prepared presentation at the meeting.
“We’ve heard the same thing from your competition,” Councilman Bill McGuire said after Casper Golf representatives talked of how they’d make the course profitable. “Everybody says ‘We’re going to make your golf course break even, and we’ve got a plan to do it.’”
McGuire, who called the course a “money pit,” said the city’s goal was to make sure the taxpayers aren’t funding the course.
“Most of the people here are not rabid golfers, and they don’t like reaching for their wallet every year when we make up a budget that includes that golf course,” he said.
But despite the repeated deficits at Palm Harbor— Kemper has a projected deficit of $225,000 for this year, and had a deficit of $130,000 last year — the company has proven popular with enough local golfers that a contingent of them showed showed up in support of the company at the Aug. 26 workshop, and about 100 showed up again Sept. 2, packing the meeting room’s audience area and an overflow room, and holding placards reading “Keep Kemper.”
“Like others here tonight, I have a lot of pride in Palm Harbor,” resident Mike Jackson said during the public comment period. “It has to do with the current staff at Palm Harbor… this is why the experience at Palm Harbor is most enjoyable, and I personally have little desire to play elsewhere, although ample opportunity exists.”
Carol Ogden, of the Palm Coast Tennis Club, said she favored Kemper because it would continue to take care of the tennis center.
“If you keep Kemper Sports in place, I know we’ll be in good hands,” she said. “They’re already doing a capable job.”
One man said he was playing competitively again because Kemper Sports staff had taken the time to work with him daily as he was recovery from Crohn’s disease.
“Six of their staff members visited my home, just to see how I was,” he said. “It’s something about this community that has just brought the life back to me.”
Council members questioned whether Casper Golf would be an improvement.
“What is Billy Casper going to do that Kemper doesn’t already do?” Councilman Bill McGuire said at the Aug. 26 meeting. “Basically, it’s the same presentation Kemper made. I’m sill looking for what’s going to make Billy Casper better than Kemper.”
Santangelo said at that meeting that Billy Casper Golf would offer different price points with different benefits, bringing in new players.
“You have to offer programs and opportunities that are flexible and meet the needs of the community,” she said. And, she said, Billy Casper has a “war room” of data collected where “they discuss those analytics and develop targeted marketing strategies for those individuals.”
Netts said he wasn’t sure that the goal of bringing in new players was addressed in Casper’s presentation.
“The only reason in my mind for changing is increasing rounds of play,” he said. “I’d like to see it make money. That’s probably never going to happen, but the less we have to rely on tax dollars, the better off we’re going to be.”
But at the meeting Sept. 2 meeting, Casper Golf business vice president Douglas White said the company’s focus on analytics sets it apart from Kemper.
“We just chose to … focus on understanding our customer much more, as to how we can make their experience better,” he said.
White spoke about the “war room” — a detailed system of customer analysis — that was a major reason Santangelo said city staff picked Casper over Kemper.
“The key to the war room is understanding where our play is,” he said. Of the company’s customers, he said, “over 3 million of those people, we can tell you how many times they play our golf course.”
And, he said, Casper understands the unique needs of municipal courses.
“We manage over 70 municipal golf courses,” he said. “We understand that dynamic.” Billy Casper Golf “has not lost a municipal golf course in the state of Florida,” he said.
The council also heard a few words from Kemper Executive Vice President Ben Blake and Down to Earth representative Jeff Yost. Neither had been specifically invited to speak ahead of time — the council invited them up at the meeting, after Casper Golf’s representatives spoke — so both men spoke off-the-cuff, without prepared comments.
Yost said Down to Earth would lease the course, for free, or for $1, if needed, and then absorb any losses itself.
He got a few questions from intrigued, but skeptical, councilmen.
Councilman Jason DeLorenzo said to Yost, “About a month ago, I told my wife, ‘I don’t care if somebody would pay a dollar to lease the golf course, I would take it.’ But it’s also scary because of your relative newness at leasing a course.”
Down to Earth leases one other course, and has done so for less than a year.
Mayor Jon Netts said before the vote that the decision wasn’t an easy one.
But the fact that Kemper — unlike the other candidates — would also manage the tennis center was a point in its favor, he said, and he was skeptical of Casper Golf’s promise to increase yearly rounds of golf from 38,000 to 42,000.
“I don’t think you can squeeze more rounds of golf out of these golfers,” he said. “I think they’re playing about as much as they can. I’ve not heard anything that convinces me that one’s going to be more effective than the other. … I wish there was one candidate that was head and shoulders above the rest, but there isn’t.”