For local and state golf organizations, the proposed state takeover of the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Buckhead is an opportunity to put Atlanta back on the golfing map. The state has pledged an investment of $25 to $50 million to transform the 90-year-old grounds from 18-holes to a reversible nine-hole course. There would also be a driving range, practice ranges for college teams, renovation of the historic clubhouse, a museum dedicated to the course’s legendary namesake and a new structure called the Georgia Golf House.
However, not every golfer or resident who lives around the course located in Atlanta Memorial Park in the Peachtree Battle neighborhood, is so enthusiastic. Many believe removing the original 18-holes will destroy the playability of the course. Others are concerned about an increase in traffic and noise at the park, which also contains the busy Bitsy Grant Tennis Center. Still others are concerned about the ongoing flooding and sewage overflows along Peachtree Creek that regularly contaminate Atlanta Memorial Park.
All of that enthusiasm and concern was on display at the May 25 meeting of the Atlanta City Council Finance/Executive Committee. A parade of representative from state and local golf organizations – including the PGA – spoke during public comment and encouraged the city to transfer the Bobby Jones Golf Course to the state. In return, the state will “land swap” part of the old World of Coca-Cola property and a parking garage next door to Underground Atlanta, which is the final piece of property needed for the city to sell the struggling Downtown mall to a developer who plans to build apartments, a supermarket, retail and restaurants.
The sale of Underground Atlanta, which has been in limbo for nine months, is a high priority for Mayor Kasim Reed and the city council. “I want to get rid of Underground so bad I can taste it,” Dist. 7 Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook said during the meeting. “It’s $12 million a year going up in a bonfire.” Shook was referring to the maintenance and other costs the city has to pay since it took over the struggling property in 2104.
Mayor Reed, who was also in attendance at the meeting, said he recognized the state’s intention to make the golf course nine holes is controversial, but that debate has been going on for years. “We need to look at the total picture and state’s investment to make Bobby Jone a best-in-class golf course,” Reed said. “The governor’s office has told me that refurbishing the course is a priority.”
Reed said the golf course is worth $12.7 million in its current state, while the state property the city would receive Downtown is worth around $10.5 million. The mayor said South Carolina-based WRS Inc., the development company that wants to buy Underground, has agreed to pay more for the property to make up the difference.
Reed disclosed that the grocery store proposed for Underground wanted more parking, plus an increase in the size of the residential component had brought the parking deck into play. It wasn’t originally part of the purchase deal, the mayor said.
“The state has been very candid about wanting to own and manage a golf course and they believe Bobby Jones is the ideal facility,” Reed said. “The state wanted the golf course a year ago, but there were severe reservations from the city council.”
One of those with reservations is Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, who represents District 8 where the golf course is located. “I know there’s a lot of pent up anxiety about how this transaction will work,” Adrean said at the meeting.
Adrean has set up a public meeting on the transfer of Bobby Jones to be held on Friday, June 3, at 3 p.m. at the clubhouse. The mayor and state officials are expected to be on hand to answer questions.
Adrean was flummoxed by the appearance of Jim Chapman with the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, who presented a site plan and rendering of the Georgia Golf House, which would house the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and offices of the Georgia State Golf Association and Georgia PGA, which would be built on the site.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this plan,” Adrean said. “We haven’t heard word boo from the state with this plan. We haven’t been approached by the state at all. I find it astonishing that this is being presented as if it’s the final plan for Bobby Jones because the community has had no contact from the state.”
Chapman was followed by Bobby Cupp, son of the world-renowned golf course designer Bob Cupp, who has designed a new nine-hole reversible course preferred by the state and the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy (AMPC).
Marty Elgison, co-founder of the AMPC and a spokesman for the family of Bobby Jones, said the proposal to turn the course into a reversible nine-hole layout had been ongoing for five years. “There were many public meetings and this was the plan submitted to the city’s parks and recreation department. There is nothing new here.”
Elgison read a statement from the Jones family, who are in support of the state transfer of the course, its renovation into nine-holes and the addition of new amenities. “Our grandfather would be delighted to hear of the plans to renovate the course,” the letter said in part.
Justin Bowler, current president of the Friends of Bitsy Grant Tennis Center, said he wanted to make sure the state maintained the plan to redevelop the entire Atlanta Memorial Park, including 10 new tennis courts for the facility.
Chuck Palmer, chairman of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Committee, said, frankly, that the city of Atlanta had “horrendous public golf facilities.”
“Transferring the course to the state is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the city,” Palmer said. “It won’t cost the citizens a penny and will transform it into a jewel.”
And while the majority of the 26 people whole spoke during public comment during the meeting were in favor of the transfer, there were some who expressed doubt and concern.
Peachtree Battle resident Elizabeth Hale said it should be made clear that the state would have to “own” the flooding and sewage issues at the park and provide a solution. She also encouraged the state to connect Atlanta Memorial Park to the PATH trails and Atlanta BeltLine.
Roger Moister, a Collier Hills North homeowner, said the course should keep its 18 holes. “We do not want driving ranges or nine-hole course. We’re giving away a green jewel of the city.”
Tony Smith, a founder of the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course, suggested that students could go to the Brown’s Mill Golf Course, which has driving ranges, and also opposed the nine-hole course. He said the Charlie Yates Golf Course in East Atlanta had gone from 18 to nine holes and had lost revenue and tournaments.
Catherine Spillman, executive director of the AMPC, said the organization had three specific concerns: that Atlanta Memorial Park should always be a park and that the Conservancy be allowed to hold the conservation easement; that the city move forward quickly on fixing the flooding issues at Peachtree Creek; and that the state give local oversight and community input into the operations at Atlanta Memorial Park.
Post 2 At-Large City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said that such a major change in public property should go before Neighborhood Planning Unit-C before it’s voted on by the city council.
However, Katrina Parks Taylor, Mayor Reed’s Deputy Chief of Staff, said the land transfer to the state was not required to go before the NPU, nor was the public meeting organized by Councilwoman Adrean.
Norwood said that whether is was required or not, NPU-C should look at the plan in “good faith.” The next NPU-C meeting is June 7, a day after the city council meeting where the Bobby Jones land transfer is on the agenda.
The finance/executive committee wound up voting to move the legislation on to the city council without any recommendation in favor or against the land swap.