The much-hyped, long-awaited golf-themed destination may be gaining momentum after a slow start.
by Jane Tanner
The World Golf Village on I-95 in St. Johns County that opened last May likely will draw only a fourth of its initial projection of 1 million visitors in its first year, but insiders and outsiders say they're heartened by recent bookings at the project's convention center and believe the village's long-term prospects are still good.
The golf village, centered around the World Golf Hall of Fame and museum, also includes resort accommodations, timeshares, a golf course, attractions such as an IMAX theater and a row of tony shops to lure non-golfers. The project is being developed by a foundation comprised of dozens of golfing organizations, led by the PGA Tour. The village sits at the hub of a 4,000-acre upscale residential development, Saint Johns, spearheaded by developer Jim Davidson and largely owned by Pittsburgh-based Hillman Co. Hillman, a diversified company with real estate holdings, bought the property last summer from Dunavant Enterprises, a Memphis concern that owned the land for decades and bankrolled Davidson in the project's early stages. The golf-themed attraction and the residential project are counting on each other for success.
Davidson says residential sales are strong: The project sold $50 million residential units in 1998, and $100 million in residential construction is slated for this year, including a 300-unit apartment building and 1,100 residential units. In addition, the Mayo Clinic is building a satellite facility at Saint Johns.
The World Golf Village itself, however, got off to a rougher start. Initial attendance was damped by the wildfires that stormed through northeast Florida in June and July and closed sections of Interstate 95. Historic St. Augustine, eight miles south on I-95, normally draws more than 1.5 million visitors a year, but was nearly a ghost town last July.
Village officials also have faced the marketing challenge of introducing an unfamiliar product -- despite the popularity of the game, a golf attraction isn't as easy to visualize as a zoo or waterpark. "We're creating something that is foreign to people," says Mark Berman, director of corporate marketing. Other snags, not unusual for a development of this size, include the recent pullout of Tampa-based Divot Golf Corp., which is going through major financial problems and has dropped its plans for a spa and industrial building at the village.
One start-up challenge was attempting to book the convention center before it opened. Event planners were wary of scheduling a convention in a building still under construction, says Rick Burke, director of economic development for St. Johns County. The county has a vital interest in the success of the center since it borrowed $16 million to build it, and will own it. World Golf Village is responsible for operating the center and meeting the $1.5 million annual debt service payments. The resort expects to pay off the debt over 30 years with a 2% tax on hotel room stays -- that's in addition to the county's three-cent bed tax -- and other surcharges tied to attraction admissions, golf fees, parking and such. But the three-to-four-day stays of conventioneers and business travelers are key to the revenue stream. County officials aren't worried. "We have no reason to think they can't weather a slow opening," says Michael Givens, the county finance director.
There are signs that the golf village is gaining momentum: As of late January, the convention center had scheduled 110 meetings for later this year; the resort hotel adjacent to the convention center opened; a Comfort Suites is now open; and three additional new hotels are to open soon.
World Golf Village is also beefing up its advertising, including spending more on TV ads and promotions targeting non-golfers. Many PGA Tour tournament broadcasts this year will feature a central television anchor desk at the village. Two tournaments this month, a PGA Tour senior tournament at the World Golf Village and the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, should boost exposure.
...in the news
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Equilease of Gainesville planned to break ground this month on a 150,000-sq.-ft. technology park geared to house bio-technology and computer firms. Company officials say its two-building project off I-75 between Archer and Williston roads may avoid permitting problems because its traffic will flow opposite the congested area.
Internet Connect Co. (ICC), an online access provider operating as Atlantic.Net, purchased Ocala-based Mercury Communications' subscriber base, its seventh acquisition since 1996. ICC has 60 employees, more than 20,000 subscribers and operates in 30 Florida cities.
Clay County -- Centrex Home Corp.'s long-awaited 4,500-home, $60 million Fleming Island Plantation project is getting under way this spring after permitting agencies forced the developer to revamp plans and decrease density from 16 homes an acre to 10.
Carlisle Container Corp., a maker of refrigerated shipping units with 160 employees, planned to close shop this month; county economic development officials have been wooing foreign companies in the same industry to buy Carlisle and keep it going.
To draw visitors and tourism-oriented businesses, Green Cove Springs is using a $350,000 federal grant to add 200 feet to its 300-foot pier and to spruce up downtown.
Flagler County -- Memorial Health Systems is building a $57 million, 81-room hospital and doctor's office complex to replace and more than double the size of the current hospital in Bunnell. The new hospital will be completed in 2001.
Jacksonville -- Mayor John Delaney is promoting an ambitious $313 million, five-year plan to manage growth and preserve greenspace. About $220 million would be used to set aside land in congested areas. Now, the hard part: finding the money
New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson faces a class-action lawsuit alleging it defrauded contact lens customers by charging higher prices for one-day use lenses than for longer-use lenses, although, plaintiffs say, they are the same. Both are produced at Johnson & Johnson's Jacksonville subsidiary, Vistakon.
Internet access provider Leading Network Solutions has branched out from Tampa and Jacksonville to serve Orlando. The company plans to offer services statewide by 2001.
A dozen executives from the city's largest companies are working on a task force to improve air service at Jacksonville International. Limited direct flights to major cities has been cited as a hindrance to business development.
Frederick Schultz, a former Federal Reserve Board vice chairman and Florida lawmaker, pledged $1 million toward a $7 million First Coast Teaching Institute to enhance public school instruction.
The state Division of Recreation and Parks will ask lawmakers for $1.1 million this spring to rehabilitate the Ribault Clubhouse, a vacant 1926 resort on Fort George Island in northeast Duval County. Park officials plan to turn the Ribault into an ecotourism site.
A protest by Norfolk, Va.-based Metro Machine Corp. has stalled Atlantic Dry Dock's $8.1 million contract to repair Mayport Naval Station ships. Metro bid for the same work in conjunction with nearby Fernandina Beach and the Jacksonville Port Authority.
Jacksonville Beach -- A key to reviving the downtown is expected to get under way this spring with construction of a $10 million, 10-story oceanfront Hilton Garden Inn Hotel by Pensacola developer LodgeSouth.
Lake Butler -- Dempsey Sapp Sr., founder and chairman of Florida Pest Control and Chemical Co., gave $1 million toward an endowed professorship at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Marion County -- The city of Ocala contributed $292,000 to Clairson International Corp.'s $9.4 million expansion at its ClosetMaid coated-wire storage manufacturing plant. The company expects double-digit growth and increases to its 900-employee base over the next few years.
Nassau County -- More than a dozen local businessmen formed First Capital Bank Holding Corp. to create a community bank, First National Bank of Nassau County, scheduled to open May 1.