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Westchase CDD Makes Offer for Westchase Golf Course

While Westchase Community Development District (CDD) supervisors voted unanimously to make a $4 million offer for the Westchase Golf Course on Feb. 6, it’s nowhere near a done deal yet.

The golf course purchase was the main focus of discussion at the Feb. 5 Westchase CDD workshop at the Maureen Gauzza Library and the Feb. 6 meeting at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center. The workshop saw about 10 residents attend and the CDD saw more than 50, making it the best attended Westchase community meeting in at least a decade. Field Supervisor Doug Mays rose twice during the session to bring out more chairs for later arrivals.

The vast majority of residents at the Feb. 6 official meeting of the district, however, seemed more content seeing what supervisors would do than speaking. Only six residents spoke at the session. Over the two days of meetings, not a single resident expressed opposition to the district’s purchase of the golf course. The meeting had a far different atmosphere than the more contentious district meeting in January, when some angry residents accused supervisors of planning to develop the land (which state law bans them from doing) or withholding information.

Approximately 16 residents spoke over the two February meetings, either offering support of the CDD purchase or advice on they should handle the purchase and golf course if acquired.

The resident who was nearest to questioning the wisdom of the decision was Harbor Links resident Reggie Gillis. “Is it a good idea or not?” he asked. “It depends upon the details.”

Gillis suggested supervisors create an advisory board to work with them through the due diligence period that would fall between the initial offer and the final vote to close on the land.

Dave Henderson of Glencliff stated that as one of the earliest home buyers in Westchase, he recalled the developer’s refusal to sell the course to residents. “If the golf course goes down the tubes or continues to go down the tubes, it is going to effect all of our homes,” said Henderson. “Having a golf course is what makes Westchase Westchase.”

Henderson added that if residents who live on the golf course most strongly want it to remain a course, perhaps it would be fair to ask them to pay more than other residents to maintain it as a course.

Harbor Links/The Estates resident Scott  Heydt encouraged supervisors to research the property to determine if the course is currently being used wisely. “The golf course going away would have long-term damage to our properties,” he said.

Village Green’s Ray Chiaramonte opened by stating he doesn’t golf. “But I do care about the golf course.” He cited recent golf course purchases and one that went bankrupt, declaring it a disaster for adjacent residents. Chiaramonte encouraged supervisors to buy the course. “To me this is about the community controlling its destiny.”

Glenfield’s Patrick O’Brien, who spoke at length at the Feb. 5 workshop, reiterated his comments. “I believe we should acquire ownership of the golf course and try and manage it,” he said. O’Brien stated the quality of the course needed improving and recommended making it easier, stating its current layout was frustratingly difficult. He told supervisors they should hire a manager and support staff but avoid hiring a golf course management company, which would take a portion of profits. He also encouraged supervisors to find ways to encourage Westchase’s women and children to play the course. “This is doable,” he stated. “We don’t want to be subsidizing forever the operation of the course.”

A number of other residents spoke to supervisors about the course at the prior day’s workshop. Fords resident Steve Ekovich offered his assistance, stating he had broad experience with assisting with golf course transactions and provided the district with the names of two specialized attorneys who could assist CDD Attorney Erin McCormick.

Kendra Sue of The Greens asked, “Is there going to be a development in my backyard?” She further asked if the course would be kept public or made private.

Mills responded that nothing had been determined yet but that the district was prevented by state statute from developing the land with additional housing or businesses should it buy the course.

A handful of others stated they were attending to learn more about the issue with Glencliff’s Ken Blair and Greens resident Sebastian de Alemenara both expressing a preference that the land remain a golf course.

Meanwhile, Harbor Links/The Estates resident Nancy Sells, stated it was prudent to get the course under contract. “Personally, I think it’s great you guys are looking into it to keep it in the community.”

Opening board and CDD staff discussion of the course at the Feb. 7 meeting, CDD Attorney Erin McCormick stated she had researched the course’s deed and while there were many documents to go through, she has yet to see any information to support what some residents had insisted in January – that there was a legal agreement stating the golf course had to remain a course in perpetuity. She stated that it appeared the only restriction currently keeping the course a golf course was its county zoning designation, which, CDD Chair Jim Mills pointed out at the workshop the day prior, the original Westchase developer successfully changed to build Saville Rowe on what had previously been golf course land.

Based on input from supervisors in January, McCormick stated she had prepared a purchase and sale agreement rather than a letter of intent and simply needed supervisors’ offer for the course and the due diligence period they requested.

Citing feedback he’s received from residents, Chesney stated incredulously, “I have actually received no negative feedback about exploring the purchase of the course.”

After Chesney detailed his discussions with owner Nick Neubauer, supervisors agreed on a $4 million offer.  Citing the rationale for making a higher offer than Neubauer had previously received for the course, Chesney stated the community’s desire to control its future use gave the course a higher value for the district than other operators seeking a distressed golf course. “The price makes the golf course more valuable to us than it is to another operator,” he said.

After looking over the financials and recommendations Nuebauer recently received for course enhancements, Chesney stated, “There is a lot of room for growth.”

Supervisors ultimately agreed to the $4 million purchase offer Chesney stated Neubauer had informally agreed to.

Absent from January’s meeting, Supervisor Barbara Griffith then asked a number of questions of McCormick and Chesney. Asking the status of the current golf course five year lease of the course to Green Golf Partners, Chesney stated Neubuaer had suggested the lease was assumable (which would protect the district against any loss during its term) but he had not seen the lease and stated that Florida statute would not allow the district to simply purchase Neubauer’s holding company, Sano Corporation, the holder of the lease, as Neubauer had suggested.

Hearing that the lease guaranteed Neubauer a base payment and protected him from any loss during the course of the lease, Griffith asked, “Why are we having this conversation today and not three years from now?”

The question triggered the only audible consternation from the audience during the evening.

“What happens if it goes into less stable hands?” asked Chesney in return. “That has a great impact on the homeowners in Westchase.”

Griffith pressed, “Do you think we’re going to do a better job if we own it?”

Chesney responded that getting an answer to that question was the reason the board would hire a golf course consultant.

“Ms. Griffith,” Supervisor Ross stated, “I would respectfully disagree with your summary.” Ross stated the district was not buying the property that day. Instead, he said the board was voting to make an offer and requesting six months of due diligence to research and make that determination. By putting the property under contract, Ross added, the board would ultimately control the outcome, determining whether the course was worth buying or not.

Supervisors also discussed Neubauer’s suggested 60-day period of due diligence but all dismissed it as unworkable given supervisors’ inability to discuss the matter and make formal decisions between meetings.

Ultimately Ross’ motion to direct McCormick to offer either a letter of intent or a purchase contract (at her discretion) in the amount of $4 million with six months of due diligence passed unanimously, 5-0. “We’re going to work,” observed Mills. “Stay tuned, folks.”

Supervisors then briefly spoke to Zack Vervaecke, Vice President of Green Golf Partners, which currently holds the golf course lease. Vervaecke confirmed the lease protects the current owner from losses during its duration. He added that while his company has made improvements to the course, they currently are committing one percent of revenues to capital improvements, which supervisors observed would take a long time to restore the facilities to top condition. Vervaecke acknowledged the situation but added they had undertaken personnel changes in the last year and were looking for a new chef for the course’s dining room and hoped to roll out a new menu and prices soon.

When Supervisor Ross asked if Vervaecke’s company would be interested in signing a new lease if the current one is not assignable, Vervaecke responded, “It’s something we would consider. Strongly consider. I don’t want to over commit,” he said, stating he had to first consult his partners.

Supervisors then turned to a discussion on how best to move forward with the exploration of the potential purchase, agreeing with Supervisor Griffith’s and Ross’ suggestion that the research be undertaken by experts who know golf courses rather than left in the hands of supervisors or a resident advisory board.

A series of unanimous motions followed, including the hiring, at a cost of $12,500 plus travel expenses, of Christovich and Associates, a consultant that will review the business financials and the course itself for needed capital improvements. Supervisors also approved a motion directing McCormick to hire special counsel that is familiar with golf course legal transactions to assist her in drafting the offer letter and another authorizing District Manager Andy Mendenhall to contact the district’s current bank to acquire financing for the full purchase amount and a commitment letter. Supervisors further approved a motion authorizing Chesney to serve as board liaison between meetings with the district attorney and its consultants and make non-monetary decisions on its behalf.

Glencliff’s Cindy Coolidge observed that the board agenda still listed the evaluation of other uses for the golf course land. Ross clarified that the list of items on the agenda were both action items for that day and during the due diligence period. Ross emphasized he included the item to give all residents who are paying district assessments the chance to weigh in with their thoughts on the property should the district acquire it. He emphasized his desire to explore the purchase was to ensure the community decides its future rather than an outside entity with an eye toward developing the land.

Greenhedges resident Suzanne Buchmann stated she lived on the sixth fairway and that her home is regularly hit by golf balls. She complained that golfers walk through her property looking for lost balls with one even making a vulgar gesture toward her when she asked him to leave her property. She suggested that players be given a list of rules for play to improve some of their language and behavior.

O’Brien closed discussion be encouraging supervisors to use the first three months of due diligence to explore the purchase and the second three months planning to make a great impression on golfers once they own the property. “It’s not a good thing to hold back for six months,” he counseled.

Supervisors will undoubtedly return to the matter, in particular Mr. Neubauer's response to their offered contract or letter, at their March workshop and meeting. The March workshop will be held March 5 at 4 p.m. at the library and the CDD meeting will be March 6 at 4 p.m. at the WCA office building on Parley Drive.  Should the owner accept the contract, supervisors will still hold an additional vote to determine whether to move forward with the formal closing on the property after the due diligence period.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

Posted Feb. 7, 2018

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