The municipal golf course on the south end of Amelia Island struggles to attract players and make money. Perhaps a swimming pool, soccer fields, tennis courts, and arcades would help.
Four of the five candidates vying for two spots on the Fernandina Beach City Commission in the Nov. 7 election took a swing at solving some of the city’s most pressing questions at a forum Thursday hosted by the women’s and men’s golf association.
One question: What’s the future for the municipal course and do you have any ideas on how to save money, increase usage and restore profitability?
One answer: Diversify recreational options.
Incumbent Tim Poynter said park impact fees might be used to create a “special facility.” He called for “out of the box thinking.”
Candidate Phil Chapman, who is challenging Mr. Poynter in Group 2, said the club house should be updated and he proposed a suggestion box to capture feedback from golfers because they “know things that can make this (facility) better.”
Candidate Chip Ross, one of three candidates competing in Group 3 for the commission in the seat being vacated by Mayor Robin Lentz, who is not seeking re-election, pointed to an industry truth: “Less people are playing golf.” Travel forum website Trip Advisor might offer valuable insight, he said. (While most reviews rank the course ‘Very Good,’ three of the latest comments are mixed: “Nice round of golf at a great price”; “Don’t waste your money here”; “Surprisingly good muni course.”)
Mr. Ross also suggested looking at Topgolf’s business model. Topgolf is a driving range-arcade-restaurant-bar hybrid with sprawling facilities in the southeastern U.S., including Jacksonville.
Mr. Ross said closing the “nine-hole course in the back” might be worth review and he would never sell the course for commercial or residential development. (Mr. Poynter said commissioners don’t have authority to do that. He said a proposed sale would need voter approval.)
Group 3 Candidate Orlando Avila said the city should ask the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Development Council headed by Gil Langley for help with marketing and he would say, “Hey Gil, can you do this for us?”
Group 3 Candidate Medardo Monzon did not attend the forum.
Candidates were asked about the marina (yep, they agreed, it should be repaired) and how to enhance downtown and the city’s entry corridor, which wasn’t specified but S. 8th St. was likely meant, though the marina is also considered to be an entry point.
Mr. Avila said there is “planting to be done” along the corridor and developers need an easier permitting process. “We have to…make that happen,” he said.
Mr. Poynter said change takes time (“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight”) and the city had plans to create a waterfront park but “politics stopped it.” He said the city has a sidewalk plan but infrastructure costs money and budgets must be balanced. Regarding the marina, he said the city received FEMA approval for the $7 million repair plan two weeks ago and the fuel dock, a significant revenue stream, should open in February.
Mr. Poynter said taxes are going up and new residents do the “heavy lifting” financially. He said there is a wide disparity between longtime residents and newcomers who might respectively pay $200 and $2,000 in property taxes.
Mr. Chapman said street lights are needed on side streets near Centre St. where “it’s dark.” He wondered how traffic would maneuver flooding along Front St. during high tide and full moons if the city moves ahead with plans to open Alachua St. “Unless you have an amphibious craft,” he said.
Mr. Ross said a pedestrian crosswalk at Alachua and Front Streets might be a better solution. For sure it would cost less, he said. Estimates for opening the roadway have reached $800,000. A crosswalk, he estimated, would cost $30,000.
The golfers asked candidates how to get businesses and citizens “on the same page for the future of our city.”
Mr. Poynter thinks they are on the same page. But he encouraged people to “embrace change” which, he said, is inevitable. “Don’t be scared,” he said. Mr. Poynter, who moved to the city 18 years ago, said the roundabout at S. Fletcher Ave. and Sadler Rd. concerned him when it was first installed. “But it works,” he said.
Mr. Chapman said officials should hit the pavement and talk with local businesses. “Communication is key,” he said.
Mr. Avila said everyone has their own idea about “paradise” and the city should enforce “good policy.” He thinks businesses and citizens are “on the same page” but doubts residents go to “tourist driven stores” on Centre St.
Candidates were given two minutes to respond to each question and a startling alarm sounded when it was time to stop talking. Golf Course Director Steve Murphy, who works for management company Billy Casper Golf, handled the timer. The countdown clock in the back of the public room was visible to candidates who were lined up at folding tables in front of large windows overlooking greenery and the occasional golfer walking to the nearby parking lot. The forum took about 75 minutes.
Mr. Ross was most effective using the clock. He was prepared with details (enforce the comprehensive plan, maintain safety, expand greenways, encourage people to buy local, simplify regulation) and drew applause from the audience when he committed to preserving open space and stopping development on wetlands. Hold the applause – and boos – said Men’s Golf Association President Jon Berk, who moderated the forum with Women’s Golf Association President Terri Wright.
Mr. Ross said the city should establish an Amelia Riverkeeper “to preserve and protect the marshes around us.” He acknowledged that his efforts to protect the environment by challenging city officials has people calling him “a troublemaker.”
Mr. Poynter said he is a “big property rights guy” and thinks people should protect the environment by buying undeveloped land if they can come up with the money. He said the Pirates Playground, Friends of the Library, and Humane Society have privately raised funds for projects.
Mr. Chapman—who shared many ideas about preservation and growth with Mr. Ross—said the city needs to protect wetlands, “as Chip said.”
Mr. Chapman said city officials need to consider long term implications of decisions and pointed to the recent wildfires in California for the displacement of residents. “Because city planners allowed them to increase density,” he said.
In closing remarks, Mr. Chapman said the city organizational chart places citizens on top. “I haven’t seen that happen all the time,” he said.
He said employees can help improve business and save money. “They know,” he said. He suggested ‘best-idea’ prizes.
Mr. Poynter said the city has a strong plan to move ahead and he wants to stay involved to “propel” the community forward.
Mr. Ross said he will come to meetings prepared and treat all citizens equally. He cited a quote “Malice to none, charity to all,” which he attributed to Abraham Lincoln. “If we all did that we’d have a better community,” he said.
Mr. Avila said he would be an accountable steward and work cooperatively with the Board of County Commissioners and tourism board to maintain a “business friendly” environment. He said he would maintain infrastructure and improve the quality of life.