SAN ANTONIO — Ronald Altenburg liked what he heard. The speaker made sense. People applauded. It was a far cry from the boos and hisses of prior meetings at the Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club.
"I feel that it's a great thing," said Altenburg, 67, after hearing his homeowner's association might soon own the golf course. "And if the residents vote it down, they're a bunch of fools."
The deal on the table is risky, but to many in this 55-plus Pasco County community it's a risk worth taking.
Starwood Land Ventures, the community's new developer, wants to pay $3.5 million for the country club, with a mortgage the homeowner's association would repay. Residents will vote on it in the next few months.
"I think it would be a major coup for us as residents and as owners of property," Starwood consultant David Ivin told homeowners last week.
The arrangement would be better than what exists, Ivin said.
Residents have been paying millions to the Falcone Group, which owns the country club, through their association dues. There is no written contract with the club, and little accountability.
The former community developer, Fort Lauderdale-based TOUSA, owned more than 300 of the 1,600 lots and controlled the homeowner board.
Last year, that board raised monthly payments to the club by nearly 50 percent, to $3 million a year. Four homeowners were so angry that they sued the association, claiming the whole arrangement was illegal.
In the midst of the turmoil, Starwood bought the undeveloped lots at a bankruptcy auction. The new owners soon realized how problematic the country club situation had become.
"There really is an inherent problem when a private club provides services to a captive homeowner association," Ivin said. "You have the disclosure issue, you have the lack of control, not just on fees, but on services. ... It's just a really bad setup the way it is managed right now."
Buying the club will give residents more say in how it is run, especially when they gain control of the board, Ivin said. It will save money because the new debt will be less than what Falcone owes. And the homeowner association will operate the club at break-even, with revenues used for improvements, he said.
Regions Bank, which holds the Falcone mortgage, wants the sale to close by the end of June, Ivin said. For that to happen, homeowners must vote to approve it. And Starwood needs a bank to finance the deal.
Ivin was not optimistic about the alternatives. Lawsuits could continue, frightening away buyers as Starwood and its developer, Lennar Homes, try to sell the remaining lots.
Or the Falcones could just close the club. "Believe me, this has been threatened already," Ivin said.
Homeowners here are contending with a lot of issues, not just the fate of the golf course.
A group led by an accountant and a math professor have uncovered what they say are numerous irregularities, including overpayment for bulk cable television and taxation of homeowners who technically are not members of the association.
Some owners at last week's meeting said they are tired of the controversy. "I had all this in my working years," said Jean Sanders, 66, who was encouraged by Ivin's presentation. "I'm extremely impressed. It's the best meeting I've been to."
Others wonder if people's eagerness to be rid of TOUSA and Falcone is clouding their judgment.
"I'm not a negative person, but I'm a realist," said Jim Peifer, 65, who plans to vote against the deal. "I don't want to be saddled with keeping a business afloat."
He doesn't play golf, he said, and doesn't think the community needs the course. "I'm not even sure the golf business is viable," he said.
And he doesn't trust future boards to make sound decisions. "The way it's going, all you've got to do is get a few golfers on the board, and the rest of us are at their mercy."
'I'd be really careful'
Ivin said he is optimistic about the club's prospects. For one thing, the community's demographics — generally, retirees with leisure time — make the place a favorable market.
Maybe, said John Riccardi, who oversees community development districts for Severn Trent Management. The Florida landscape is littered with failing or bankrupt courses, and communities that are struggling to support them.
"I'd be really careful," he said. "Take any projections about revenue and expenses and really, really scrutinize them. Play may increase, but your price per round might not increase. ... Even at 50 cents on the dollar, it might not be a good deal."
Starwood has two resident committees helping with its analysis, and there will be more meetings before the vote.
As a show of confidence in the new owners, Donald Mounts, one of the residents who had filed the lawsuit, announced his group is dropping the complaint.
"This is a win-win situation for everybody in Tampa Bay," said Mounts. "If this goes through, once it happens, we have won. We own our destiny."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4602.