Key Biscayne

Trump wants to rescue Crandon golf, but fans say course just fine

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Jack McGuire plays golf twice a week at Miami-Dade County’s Crandon Park, and he insists the 18-hole course requires no bailout from Donald Trump.

“The only thing this course needs is better sand in the sand traps,” said McGuire, an insurance executive from Connecticut who rents a vacation home in Key Biscayne near Crandon. “I think this is a lovely public course.”

Trump, the billionaire golf mogul and television star, has offered to redo Crandon in exchange for a management deal that would give him control of the county park system’s premiere course through the rest of the century. The proposed deal leaves elected leaders to decide just how much of a turnaround Crandon golf needs.

Trump promises a $10 million rehab budget and the expertise that comes with his global chain of resorts and high-end golf courses, including the recently renovated Trump National Doral. The brash celebrity famous for his “You’re fired” catch-phrase sees Crandon falling far short of its waterfront potential. “It’s in terrible condition. Everybody knows that,” Trump said during a brief interview Friday. “Frankly, it’s something that could be phenomenal if we ever did anything with it.”

But with Crandon recently ranked Florida’s best municipal course by Golfweek and generating almost 45,000 rounds per year, skeptics of the Trump plan wonder why Miami-Dade would consider letting a developer take over the popular course.

“I guess the USGA doesn’t view Crandon in the same light as Mr. Trump,” Bill Irvine, at the time a top county parks official, wrote to a superior in a May 2 email obtained by the Miami Herald through a public-records request. Attached was a list of top South Florida golf courses rated by the United States Golf Association, with Crandon at the No. 3 slot. “Maybe we don’t need to be saved,” wrote Irvine, who retired last summer.

Submitted officially on July 2 but only recently made public, Trump’s proposal includes $1 million in design fees to create a new layout for the 1972 course. Over 18 months, his team would spend $9 million replacing all bunkers, tees, greens, fairways, and the clubhouse. His plan includes drastic trimming of the mangroves that currently block the course’s view of Biscayne Bay, transforming a sleepy restaurant into a thriving hospitality operation, and returning Crandon to the circuit of professional golf tournaments.

In exchange for the upgrades, Trump proposed a 99-year management agreement. Crandon would remain a public course within the county’s parks system, but with Trump’s company in control.

Current discounts for Miami-Dade residents would remain in place for 36 months, unless the two sides “otherwise reasonably agreed” to a different pricing plan for locals, according to the 10-page draft proposal.

Trump would keep 90 percent of the operating profits, and guarantee the county at least $100,000 per year. Trump’s forecasts show Crandon generating a yearly profit of $2.3 million in its fifth year under new management. With Crandon posting a loss of $360,000 in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, Trump’s team sees its proposal as a way to end taxpayer support of an elite pursuit.

“Miami-Dade is subsidizing golf for the rich people of Key Biscayne,” said Trump consultant Ed Russo. With Trump’s offer, “you have private money solving a public problem. That should be encouraged.”

Parks administrators say Crandon only lost money for a recent two-year stretch and is on track to return to profitability in 2015. County records show the course generated $2.8 million in operating profits since 2004. Miami-Dade’s golf division, which includes four other courses, is budgeted to require a $730,000 subsidy this year.

“If we’re losing money every year and he can put that kind of money into it… I think the government has to take a very serious look at it,” said Dick Anderson, the former Miami Dolphins star and state senator and current board member of the county’s Parks foundation. “Regardless of what people might think of Donald Trump, he does great golf courses.”

Even Crandon defenders concede the course could use some help. A rotting wooden gazebo still sits on one of the course’s few open vistas to the bay, a victim of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Craig Arnold, a visiting Dow Chemical executive from Switzerland, gave Crandon a thumbs-up after a recent 18 holes but said he expected a more lush setting. “It seems very dry,” he said.

Trump’s forecast has Crandon’s hospitality revenue soaring from $32,000 to $683,000 once the new course opens. While the number of golf rounds are forecast to decrease 17 percent for the first year of Trump management, green-fee revenue would shoot up 25 percent from a higher concentration of out-of-town players. Russo said Trump plans to sell Crandon outings to Doral guests during the summer, when Crandon isn’t as busy.

“We’ll have some kind of convention where 50 or 60 people come in from Munich or Hong Kong and stay at the Doral for a week,” Russo said. “During the summer, we’ll be pitching Crandon as a different kind of golf course.”

Expenses would drop, too. Trump’s team has already met with county sewer officials about a $50,000 pilot program Trump would fund to use treated wastewater from the Virginia Key sewage plant to irrigate Crandon and save on water bills. With three golf destinations in Florida, Trump can bring purchasing and management efficiencies to Crandon. Freed from union pay scales and benefits, Trump’s plan shows staff costs for the course dropping 14 percent.

“A management company is going to save a government a lot of money,” said Tara McKenna, director of the golf management program at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. “A city really can’t fire anybody. Donald Trump can.”

Trump’s proposal represents only an initial offer, and Miami-Dade would open up a formal bidding process if it opted to pursue a management contract. Trump describes his Crandon plan as a gift to Miami-Dade.

“I do not see this as a profit generating transaction for the Trump Organization,” Trump wrote to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a March 5 letter. “This is truly a legacy project for myself, and a chance to work with the people of Miami-Dade County to create something that is truly wonderful.”

Russo, the Trump consultant heading up talks with Miami-Dade, said Crandon needs to generate more revenue to support pristine conditions. He wants water-testing stations planted throughout Crandon to catch any issues with chemical run-off from the course. Walking Crandon, Russo pointed to tees that needed leveling and patchy grass brought on by a haphazard planting regimen.

“As you’re walking up, there’s like three or four different grasses,” he said of Crandon’s practice green. “They grow at different speeds and different directions, so the ball doesn’t roll true.”

Crandon did not make Golf Digest’s list of the country’s 100 best public courses, but it beat out all Florida contenders by snagging the No. 30 slot on Golfweek’s ranking of government-owned courses. “Right now, we have some of the best greens in South Florida,” said Steve Jablonowski, Miami-Dade’s manager of golf operations. “They’re fast. They’re consistent. Golfers know what they’re going to get.”

Jablonowsi said more money would let him improve Crandon’s appearance, but adds he doesn’t want to raise fees to pay for it. He said the course attracts a large number of retirees and working-class residents who appreciate a greens fee schedule that has winter rounds costing as little as $85 for county residents. At the Trump Doral, playing the famed Blue Monster costs $395.

“We’re trying to offer the best conditions for the least amount of money,” he said. “Not the best conditions for the most amount of money.”

Rules tied to the settlement of a 1988 court challenge by heirs of the Matheson family, which once owned the land, ban anything that hints at commercial ventures at Crandon. That includes outside operators as well as sponsor signs, a must for pro golf tournaments. Bruce Matheson, who sits on the Crandon review board, essentially holds veto power over changes. Pointing to Crandon’s favorable reviews, Matheson recently said to The Miami Herald: “Why do you need Donald Trump?”

The Miami Open Tennis tournament from Crandon’s tennis operation is suing to invalidate Matheson’s authority at the park, so a court victory on that front could mean a big win for Trump, too. Russo said he’s confident about maneuvering through both the existing Crandon rules and the environmental regulations governing the 20-foot tall mangroves that surround most of Crandon.

If Trump “can’t get the 450 yards of mangroves reduced to 4 feet high so the Miami Skyline can be seen along [hole] Number 18, there will be no deal,” Parks Director Jack Kardys wrote in a May 6 email to an aide.

Trump’s combative persona presents its own challenges in the political arena. After Doral fined his resort for noise violations tied to grass mowing around the course, Trump’s organization sued the city. (Doral objected publicly, saying the two sides were already in talks, and Trump dropped the suit Thursday.) Earlier this year, Trump sued Palm Beach County over airline routes from the county-owned airport he claims deliberately fly over his exclusive Mar-a-Lago golf club. As he publicly flirts with another presidential run, the GOP favorite has used his Twitter feed to scoff at global warming and accuse President Obama of bankrupting the United States.

So far, political leaders in Miami-Dade haven’t stepped up to champion Trump’s proposal. He can’t count on public support from Mayor Gimenez, who first heard Trump’s pitch about what he could do for Crandon when the two played 18 holes there in late 2013. Gimenez later met with Russo and top aides about Crandon, and pressed parks officials to respond quickly to Trump’s initial written offer.

Weeks after calling Russo for a campaign contribution from Trump, Gimenez said he hadn’t known Parks received Trump’s formal proposal until he read about it in The Miami Herald. Gimenez recused himself from the Crandon matter, citing a potential conflict since one of his sons serves as a lawyer and registered lobbyist for Trump in Doral .

With the mayor’s formal withdrawal Feb. 11, county rules give Commission Chairman Jean Monestime the authority to recommend whether Miami-Dade should pursue Trump’s proposal. Monestime said he wasn’t ready to render a verdict on Trump’s proposal, but said “it appears to be a long-shot.”

Xavier Suarez, the county commissioner who represents Key Biscayne, opposes the proposal, and the Trump Doral’s own district commissioner, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, had cold words for the idea. “I think that is a facility that belongs to the citizens of Miami-Dade County,” Diaz said of Crandon. “And it’s a fabulous facility. And that’s the way it should stay.”

All the push-back and media attention did not seem to leave Trump in a fighting mood.

“I don’t know that the deal is going to happen.... It’s not No. 1 on my priority list,” he said during a Friday event with Jack Nicklaus at the Trump Doral. “I’d love to do it. I can’t make money with it. But I’d love to do it.”

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