Area tourism and development leaders say there are opportunities created by the 2023 departure of the World Golf Foundation Hall of Fame and Museum from St. Johns County for North Carolina.
After 25 years at World Golf Village, the relocation from St. Augustine back to Pinehurst wasn’t unexpected.
It will reopen at Golf House Pinehurst, the new United States Golf Association campus.
A Hall of Fame spokesperson, who did not want to be identified, acknowledged the environment is different from when the facility opened in 1998.
The spokesperson confirmed a drop in visitors from a high of 230,000 to 60,000 last year, reported by The Florida Times-Union.
The Hall of Fame’s 25-year lease that started in 1998 when the facility opened also is ending.
The building that houses the Hall of Fame, along with the IMAX Theater, is owned by World Golf Village Inc. while the property it sits on is owned by St. Johns County.
“We’ve known that this was coming and felt like this was inevitable,” said Richard Goldman, president and CEO of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.
“These things happen. Had this been 15 years ago when this happened, I would have said this would have been a major harm to us,” Goldman said about golf tourism.
He said that while he is not happy to see the attraction leave, St. Johns County has more visibility in the golf tourism industry than it did when the Hall of Fame opened.
“It’s just not as important now because we have reached a status,” Goldman said. “We’re at a more mature stage as a world golf destination.”
The Hall helped that.
“The World Golf Hall of Fame’s presence here for the past 24 years has been to build upon the awareness of our destination as a world pillar in golf. you know what? It’s worked,” Goldman said.
Continued golf tourism
Goldman said The Players tournament and the PGA Tour headquarters, both in Ponte Vedra Beach, continue to draw a worldwide spotlight.
He stressed that golf tourism remains a major draw for St. Johns County.
“I would argue that we are continuing to grow our stature in the golf world, we’re just using different tools,” Goldman said.
Goldman said the pandemic hurt Hall of Fame attendance, as it did most tourist attractions.
He said more than that, the demographic draw of the Hall of Fame was not evolving with the times.
“Museums, especially museums that cater to an older male population, are going to suffer a bit. That’s not really where we are these days,” Goldman said.
“Millennials are the new future. They’re spending money on different kinds of experiences.”
The Hall of Fame spokesperson agreed.
“The Hall of Fame acknowledges that today’s generation of golf fans consume the sport and its history differently, and the decision to expand its partnership with the USGA (United States Golf Association in North Carolina) will position the Hall of Fame to be able to evolve in the same manner.”
World Golf Village is off Interstate 95, south of County Road 210, in northern St. Johns County.
The 35,000-square-foot Hall of Fame building is at the northern end of a ring of structures that surround a water feature.
There are multiple building owners while the grounds and parking lot are owned by World Golf Foundation Inc., according to county records.
The World Golf Foundation and World Golf Village Inc. have the same leadership and address, headquartered in the Hall of Fame building.
Its leadership comprises golf’s major international organizations and professional tours, including the PGA Tour.
When the Hall leaves World Golf Village, so will the foundation, but it will remain in Northeast Florida, according to its spokesperson. The staff likely will move to the PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra.
Lorena Inclán, director of the office of public affairs for the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners, said Aug. 22 it was too early to know what will happen next with the site. She said the board would make the decision.
“Right now, St. Johns County is looking forward to other economic development opportunities for that property,” Inclán said in an email.
“Once those opportunities are identified, and as soon as we have more details on how or when the property will be redeveloped, we will be sure to share that information with the public.”
Most of the smaller buildings in front of the Hall of Fame are owned by WGV Commercial LLC through American Commercial Realty Corp. or Palm Beach Gardens.
It bought five buildings, which were nearly vacant, in 2017. It also acquired two undeveloped parcels.
“We recognized the potential of the Hall of Fame serving as an anchor attraction for the area, but ultimately purchased the property based on our analysis of the opportunity independent from any traffic generated by the Hall,” ACR CEO Rick Baer said in an email.
“This proved to be wise when the Hall’s directors ceased most of their proactive marketing in the following year and then were forced like most large attractions to close during the height of the pandemic.”
ACR said its 79,991 square feet of space is fully leased.
Tenants include Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurant, Crystal Ballroom, Trilogy Day Spa, 3N Motion Dance Studio, Lion’s Den Martial Arts and Sunshine Kids.
ACR said Bluegreen Vacations, which owns a timeshare resort nearby, is building a sales center and showroom in the final space available.
Reverb Church owns its building at the center of the strip that was once a golf store.
World Golf Foundation Inc. owns the PGA Tour Entertainment building that stands alone near the Hall.
The Hall of Fame also manages the IMAX Theater, which shows first-run movies and documentaries.
Other owners near the Hall of Fame include World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort and Honors Golf.
The convention center property at the Marriott also is owned by St. Johns County.
A new vision
The departure of the Hall of Fame is seen as a reason to institute a new vision for the area.
From an economic standpoint, Isabelle Renault, president and CEO of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, said she sees no damage from the departure, but rather optimism as to what might come next.
“It’s unfortunate to see them leave,” Renault said.
“But, at the same time, it does open some new opportunities for that area.”
Renault acknowledged the World Golf Village is not in the main tourism hub of St. Johns County and not directly connected to Ponte Vedra Beach or St. Augustine, which historically are known as strong tourist attractions.
“At that time (it opened), there was not a lot there. It was a great fit for World Golf Village,” Renault said of the location.
”Now, the environment is quite different the way our county looks.”
The Hall of Fame says it will be involved in what happens next.
“The Hall of Fame has been meeting with stakeholders for months – including St. John’s County officials and World Golf Village partners – to evaluate options for the future of World Golf Village,” the Hall of Fame spokesman said.
“That process also includes hearing from the World Golf Village community on what they believe to be the best future use for the area. Additional details will be made available at a later date.”
Goldman sees the World Golf Village hotel and convention facilities as an asset.
“We’re going to have to see what the foundation out there has planned. Our job is to promote touristic assets as we find them,” he said.
Location is a driver
The World Golf Village is in the middle of one of the strongest real estate markets not only in Northeast Florida, but in the country.
Mark Rosener, president of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors, said northern St. Johns County is exploding with residential development.
While there are entanglements with the county technically owning some of the land in World Golf Village, real estate development offers options.
Rosener said more residents mean a need for more commercial support.
“The more (residential) rooftops that happen in an area, there’s more demand for convenient restaurants and retail and that kind of thing,” Rosener said.
“I don’t see this as a detriment.”
The 60,000 Hall of Fame visitors last year was not a huge draw, he said.
“And with as many household rooftops that are going in in that area it can be converted to much more viable space,” Rosener said.
With residential growth in northern St. Johns County, Renault said the World Golf Village complex could see an overhaul in commercial interests.
“The World Golf Village could be quite different than what it has been. It could easily create some sort of hub for something in some industry,” Renault said.
“The idea that we have more commercial space in our community is exciting and that there is a way to reinvent that part of that county.”
George Kleier, ACR director of leasing, said in an email the company is focused on the future of World Golf Village.
He said the company has two parcels that could be developed for merchant, office or residential use.
“We see opportunity now that the Hall has decided to make its current space available for redevelopment,” he said.
Managing Editor Monty Zickuhr contributed to this report.