Recession hits the country club
As golf courses around the country succumb to debt, one Florida neighborhood is battling to keep its club alive.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Three weeks ago, several hundred residents of Bonita Springs, Fla., received letters containing a word that no homeowner wants to see: foreclosure. But the property in danger didn't belong to them.
Florida developer Ronto Group informed the residents that Palmira Golf Club - the gated community's crown jewel - was shuttering due to the company's inability to pay its lenders.
"We were blindsided," said Ron Saul, a Palmira member and local realtor. Residents watched as the club's employees walk out with boxes. Gone were the club's services, membership fees worth tens of thousands of dollars, and, in the eyes of some residents, the value of their multi-million dollar homes.
"You have to think about how you might feel if you just watched $95,000 (the cost of a golf membership at Palmira) go into a black financial hole," wrote one resident, who asked to remain anonymous, in an e-mail to Fortune. "This may be the land of titanium drivers and $20,000 barbecue grills, but there's a limit."
Palmira's downfall came as a surprise to its members, but it was preceded by similar incidents around the country. According to Jeff Woolson, the head of commercial real estate company CB Richard Ellis's golf division, foreclosures of golf clubs and their surrounding communities are on the rise.
"We started hearing from lenders about six months ago," he said. "The next thing you know, there's a master community with a fence around it."
Commercial real estate, a sector that's lagged behind the rest of the industry in experiencing the credit crunch, is about to get hit hard, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. One finding: investors believe that sales of homes in golf club communities will be near abysmal next year which, in turn, will hurt club memberships.
"The courses are owned by people who leveraged them up, and they're going to feel the pain," said Susan Smith, the director of real estate at PwC.
Woolson predicts that the number of golf community foreclosures will continue to rise next year - and developers too will feel the pain. "I've made a lot of money over the past eight years selling golf courses that weren't making money," he said. "The developers see profits when they sell the last 25% of the development - if the market comes to a halt before then, they're in trouble."
One of Woolson's properties, Winchester Country Club in Auburn, Calif., was repossessed by Wachovia (WB, Fortune 500) in May. Other prominent golf properties are also battling credit issues: the owners of Park City, Utah's ritzy Promontory golf community filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and the Tamarack Resort near McCall, Idaho owes $273 million to Credit Suisse (CS) and faces possible foreclosure.
Another debtor to Credit Suisse is Quail West, a golf club community that's just down the road from Palmira. While owner Ginn Resorts owes $675 million to the Swiss bank, Ryan Julison, a Ginn spokesperson, says the developer hopes to keep its club open. "The homes themselves are not in danger," he said.
Maybe so, but living in a foreclosed development isn't good for property values. The houses in Winchester, says Woolson, are worth $1 million to $5 million each, and as much as 25% of their worth comes from being adjacent to the green.
Saul insists, however, that Palmira's residents are worried less about their property values - which are already taking hits in the slowing market - and more about "restoring our world," he said. "The golfers are used to golfing every day, the neighbors are used to using the social center - and it just stopped."
Rather than wait for the lender to act, 400 of Palmira's members gathered for a meeting after they received the foreclosure letter. They created an equity club, Palmira Golf and Country Club Inc., to raise money to keep the club running. Members were asked to contribute upwards of $500.
Woolson says that equity clubs are risky because they depend so heavily on ongoing participation. But the equity club's leadership committee, which did not return phone calls seeking comment, announced this week that neighbors had unified around the issue, collectively producing enough cash to reopen the course by Nov. 3.
The organization is still waiting to see if the lender accepts their offer to purchase the club. For now, they've bought another few rounds for the community, which has invested enough to keep Palmira running through the end of Florida's golf season in the spring. After that, the club could belong to them - or the tin can will have to go around again.