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At Tampa Bay country clubs, golf hits a rough patch

Barbara Adams didn't expect to spend her retirement years managing a golf course. She doesn't even play golf.

The former New Yorker bought her New Tampa townhouse because it needed little maintenance and she liked the area.

Five years later she found herself on a Tuesday evening in the boardroom of a $3 million clubhouse. Golf managers shifted uncomfortably as she berated them for giving free play to club employees' guests.

"We have lost so much money," she told them. "We throw it away with no checks and balances."

Adams, 73, is trying to balance the books at Heritage Isles Golf and Country Club — one of many golf course communities in the Tampa Bay area that are struggling in a triple-bogey economy.

Like so many other aspects of the Florida dream — cheap insurance, low taxes and ever-climbing property values — the promise of a luxe life on the fairways is fading out.

While some country club communities are holding steady, others are grappling with foreclosure and bankruptcy, onerous budgets and lush courses that the homeowners can barely afford to play. The situation is particularly dire in communities such as Heritage Isles, where management falls to a community development district — in other words, the homeowners.

A glut of golf courses doesn't help things: Summer rates are $1 a hole at some courses, including Heritage Harbor in Lutz. Nor does the housing collapse, which has real estate selling for as little as $50,000 in once-fashionable neighborhoods.

So many equity members were leaving Sarasota's Laurel Oak Country Club that it has sued dozens of members to try to stop them.

"I've had three back surgeries in 10 years," said Mitchell Anderson, 54, who also had trouble paying dues and assessments that the club charged for upgrades — sometimes more than $1,000 a month.

"It was a nice place to belong," he said. "Now I don't even know if I'm welcome."

In Hernando Oaks, homeowners are watching as the country club reorganizes in bankruptcy court. Among the outstanding issues: an unfinished clubhouse and uncertainty about dues.

"And that's not helping me sell houses," said Realtor Fran Lomastro. On one street where she has listings, 10 homes are for sale.

Two other Hernando County golf courses closed for business last month. "Now I no longer have a place to play golf," said Joshua Hanoud, who lives near one in Seven Hills. "It will definitely affect property values."

The situations vary widely, depending, among other things, on how well established a community is and its relationship with the club.

Some communities have no affiliation with the golf courses and are affected only if the club falters; or if they paid an inflated price for a house overlooking a fairway.

And some clubs are reporting success despite the economy. At Tarpon Springs' Wentworth Golf Club, general manager Jimmy Lynn said he has sold 48 memberships in recent months through a deal that lets equity members reduce their monthly fees by making referrals.

"It's paradise," he said. "It is absolute paradise, like their own little playground."

Boom-era developments are more vulnerable, as many home­owners are overextended in their mortgages, and sellers find themselves competing against both new construction and foreclosures.

In Zephyrhills' Lake Bernadette, Jim Cass has watched his golf course home lose close to $100,000 in value since he bought it in 2005.

"I figured it would be a good investment," said Cass, 31, who moved from his Zephyrhills home to shorten his commute to a new job in Tampa.

Fees and overbuilding

Residents of country club communities often extol the strong sense of community. Higher home prices make for better schools, they say. Children can take part in recreation programs without a long drive.

But the costs, paid in extra property taxes and user fees, can be daunting in a slow economy. And even before the recession, overbuilding had set in.

"When the first one went in, it was probably great,'' said John Ricciardi, who manages CDD-financed communities in Hillsborough and Pasco. "When the second one went in, it was probably great. And then, of course the overbuilding started.''

In their zeal to sell lots, developers included resort-style pools, clubhouses and tennis centers, some with landscaping to rival a Disney park. In CDD communities, residents pay special taxes for the upkeep of common areas and, sometimes, recreation centers.

"You're buying into the pool and they show the people in the towels and robes getting a massage, and come on,'' Ricciardi said. "That doesn't exist. But that was in the marketing brochures."

An overabundance of golf was evident nearly a decade ago, when homeowners began to assume control of Heritage Harbor, a middle-class golfing community in Lutz. Faced with more than $7 million in golf course debt, community leaders pressured developer Lennar Homes to assume much of it.

Today, the golf course makes enough money to cover the bond payments but not enough to fund its reserve account, Ricciardi said.

"It's as tough as I've ever seen it," said golf course manager John Panno, who markets largely to outside players.

A slowdown in golf, largely a product of the recession and changing lifestyles, has heightened competition everywhere. "People who used to play four times a week have reduced that to two or three times," said Tary Kettle of MasterLink, which manages courses.

"Volume is down 25, sometimes 33 percent. Revenues have fallen for most facilities from 5 percent to as much as 20 percent."

In New Tampa, Lennar's Heritage Isles faced challenges similar to those at Heritage Harbor, but did not get as much assistance.

To this day, the golf course does not make enough to pay back the recreation bond. The restaurant, a necessity for a viable golf course, loses so much money that its dining room is rarely open. Community leaders hope things will improve when they lease the place to a barbecue restaurant.

Looking for golfers

Pressures exist in higher-end communities, too. Clubs that boasted of exclusivity are lowering fees and entering into joint-play arrangements to boost business.

In Oldsmar's East Lake Woodlands, Jon Nelson and his wife want to move to a smaller home because their children have grown up and moved away. But their Arthur Rutenberg home — $599,000, down from $625,000 — won't budge.

"It's just a terrible time to be selling any house," Nelson said. While he enjoys the golf course, he said, "It's a selling point if somebody wants to belong to a country club and play golf."

He's glad he doesn't live in Wentworth, where all 95 homeowners must join the club. The cost: $6,000 upfront, then $550 a month in dues and a yearly $500 minimum for food and beverages.

"It does slim down your marketability a little bit," said Lynn, the Wentworth golf course manager. "Instead of looking for someone who wants a nice home in a gated community, you're looking for a golfer who wants to live in a nice high-end community."

While it might be easy to sell a membership to the buyer of a $1 million home, lower-priced communities are finding it a tougher sale. In Heritage Isles, where short-sale homes can be had for $99,000, buyers are also on the hook for community taxes and homeowner dues.

"I know people who have tried to sell their homes and lost three or four sales," said Adams, who pays $1,700 a year in taxes to the community and more than $300 a month to two homeowner associations.

"People cannot afford this. Only 5 percent of the people here play golf. The rest are picking up the shortfall. Currently, I think we are in debt over $1 million. We could sue, but we'd be suing ourselves."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

At Tampa Bay country clubs, golf hits a rough patch 07/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 13, 2009 12:45pm]

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