Sunday, October 2, 2022

District Going Its Own Way on Boca National, Gretsas Up to Bat in Delray

The split over the proposed Boca National golf course keeps getting wider.

On Monday, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board dropped its request that the city help to pay for construction of the course. Instead, the district will seek its own financing and stick to the Price Fazio design on which that district board members have insisted.

You could see this coming at last week’s joint meeting. District Chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang led off by asking for approval of the district’s plan. Council members previously had stated that they consider the roughly $28 million plan too expensive and would not contribute money to it. They said so again.

So as district board member Bob Rollins put it Tuesday, “We will go our own way.” Vogelgesang and District Executive Director Briann Harms want to meet with Mayor Scott Singer, City Manager Leif Ahnell and Deputy City Manager George Brown to discuss what Rollins called the “site plan” for Boca National.

The city previously underwrote bonds for the district’s $24 million purchase of the former Ocean Breeze golf course. The district reimburses the city for the roughly $1.6 million annual payments. Under that agreement, the city must approve the plan for Boca National.

As of Wednesday morning, however, Singer hadn’t heard about such a meeting. He also would have no authorization to speak for the council.

As to whether he would approve the district’s plan, Singer said, “Unfortunately, the beach and park district has still yet to share the revised designs with the city or with me.” He added, “My concern is not the location of individual bunkers or holes, but rather the overall cost.”

Vogelgesang noted that Singer previously said that if the district weren’t asking for city money, the council would have no objection. She stated that the city couldn’t deny the plan strictly on “finances.”

Councilman Andy Thomson

Councilman Andy Thomson, who has been the council’s most vocal critic of the cost, said Wednesday that he would not approve the design. He and Singer noted that the city’s consultants said the price should not exceed $15 million. Thomson also agreed with Singer that the district has not shown enough details in its plan for the roughly 200 acres.

I could not reach council members Jeremy Rodgers and Andrea O’Rourke. Monica Mayotte said she still would like the course to be a city-district project. If the district proceeds on its own, “I hope they can find ways to reduce the overall cost of the project to ensure its future financial sustainability.”

Mayotte, though, said she would approve the plan.

“If they feel this design is in the best interest of their taxpayers, then I don’t want to stand in their way,” she said.

Actually, “their” taxpayers also are the city’s taxpayers. They already are paying for what the council considers an excessive price for the land.

Now there’s the question of how the district would obtain what Rollins calls “private financing.” A general obligation bond would require a vote, since the money would come from a property tax increase. That vote likely would fail—only a minority of residents would use the course—and couldn’t happen until March.

The district could issue a revenue bond. But does the district bring in enough now to support such a bond?

That leaves a loan. Board member Craig Ehrnst said, “Banks have already communicated an interest, and the private placement market is ideally situated for our type of loan needs.”

Ehrnst said the agency’s finances are solid, even though the district at several points stated that it wouldn’t need money from the city toward Ocean Breeze and then asked for $20 million.

And could the district get a better rate than the city? Boca Raton’s credit rating is AAA. The interest rate for the land bonds is 2.64 percent. That’s more than a point below current, 30-year mortgage rates.

“It’s early,” Ehrnst said.

Based on my conversations, district board members don’t see themselves as unreasonably stubborn on Boca National. They see themselves as delivering something better than the city could that would be worth the cost.

“We want a destination,” Rollins said. “Something a little classier” than the city-run municipal course that Boca National would replace. Board member Steven Engel said of the council members, “They are looking at what is basically an updated Boca Municipal, while we’re looking at doing something that will give people a better reason to play than ‘it’s close and it’s cheap.’ ”

Both sides are digging in. Council members criticize the district board for raising taxes to pay for an expensive golf course. Ehrnst responds that the increase is to cover payments to the Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency, city-district projects “plus golf and all other community desired projects.”

Ehrnst added, “Given this tension, the tax increase is just a much a responsibility of the city as it is the district.”

Finally, there’s the question of what would happen if the city refuses to approve the district’s design. Vogelgesang and Rollins cited the clause in the golf course agreement that site plan approval cannot be “unreasonably withheld.” Rollins said of a potential lawsuit by the district, “I hate to think about that.” Thomson said, “I can think of five ways that a denial would be reasonable.” 

Ocean Strand

Proposed changes to Ocean Strand presented at the EDSA community meeting. (Photo by Randy Schultz)

I reported Tuesday on the latest offer from Compson Associates for Ocean Strand. It’s the 15-acre parcel on North Ocean Boulevard that the beach and park district owns. Compson offered what the company says would be $67.5 million in cash and land for the site.

I polled four of the five district board members. There was no consensus on Compson’s proposal. I wasn’t able to reach Rollins. He said Tuesday, “I don’t think the district is interested.” Compson made its offer just last week. The district board did not discuss it on Monday night.

Gretsas up next

George Gretsas

Delray Beach will try to negotiate a contract with George Gretsas to be city manager.

Tuesday’s vote was 3-2, with Mayor Shelly Petrolia and City Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Shirley Johnson in favor. Commissioner Adam Frankel wanted a new search, again calling it “tainted.” Commissioner Bill Bathurst said, “I didn’t trust that the process was in the right place.”

Gretsas is city manager in Homestead. Boylston said the city had contacted him Wednesday morning to schedule a meeting. Notably, that meeting will include City Attorney Lynn Gelin, the city’s recruiter and no one else. I reported last week that Petrolia attended the meeting with Michael Cernech—the commission’s first choice—and ended the negotiations without consulting her colleagues.

Bathurst said he wanted the city to be clearer about “the parameters” before negotiations began. The city offered Cernech $257,000—$13,000 more than Mark Lauzier was making. Cernech asked for $270,000—the top end of the advertised salary scale—and annual raises of at least 5 percent and as much as 8 percent.

Cernech also wanted the city to pay premiums on two life insurance policies totaling $1.5 million and 10 weeks of annual vacation and sick leave. He would have been able to bank some of that time and cash in what he didn’t use.

Though Boylston wouldn’t comment on Cernech’s demands, he said the recruiter told commissioners, “You’ll need to open your checkbook.” Despite his hesitancy, Bathurst said, “I hope to get this done.” Boylston is hopeful that a contract can go before the commission at its next meeting on Oct. 1.

The Boca Museum of Art and the city

Rendering of updates at the Boca Museum of Art

The Boca Raton Museum of Art wants a favor from the city and promises a big return on investment.

At last week’s city council workshop, Executive Director Irvin Lippman said the museum would announce next year a “significant international exhibition.” He wouldn’t give details, but Lippman said the event could bring $150 million in economic impact.

From the city, Lippman told the council, the museum wants help in opening up the east side of the building that faces Mizner Park. The museum is on the park’s northeast corner, next to the amphitheater. Officials have completed refinements on the west and south sides but want a new eastern entryway that Lippman said would become “a new public space” with a sculpture garden.

Lippman asked that the city remove the colonnades on the east side of the amphitheater, create a curb cut near the clock tower that would allow drivers to drop off people and grant an easement to permit a walkway from that spot. Lippman said a museum consultant estimates the cost at $1.25 million. The museum would pay about half.

Council members Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte immediately supported the idea. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers and Mayor Scott Singer had questions. Rodgers wants comment from city staff, and Singer noted that the area is home to “a lot of other city programs.” City Manager Leif Ahnell asked for “more detailed plans.”

Lippman would like a prompt commitment from the city. The proposal will come back to the council once the staff has reviewed it.

Canal clearing status

Two years ago, after Hurricane Irma brushed South Florida, the Lake Worth Drainage District began a program to clear its canals of adjoining vegetation and structures that could come down in a storm and block the flow of water. The district, which covers southeastern Palm Beach County, is the secondary flood-control agency after the South Florida Water Management District.

Rollout of the program got bumpy. Residents of Boca Raton and Delray Beach complained about inadequate notice and overzealous clearing. Boca Raton officials intervened. In some cases, communications improved.

Still, the work pretty much went on. According to Tommy Strowd, the district’s executive director, it soon will be finished.

Aside from some work in Broken Sound that should be done this year, Strowd said, mostly “small projects” remain in Boca Raton. Everything in Delray Beach will be complete “about this time next year.”

Almost all of the remaining projects are in the northwest sections of each city. The district also has work scheduled for West Boca and West Delray.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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