Crescent Oaks Country Club sits just off East Lake Road in Tarpon Springs, one of the last developments before entering Pasco County. Big brick walls line the property and a guard gate monitors visitors and residents.
From the exterior, Crescent Oaks looks like many of the golf club communities that popped up in North Pinellas County over the past 20 years. But the brick walls and guard gate hide a brown, unused course that shut down due to lack of funds Nov. 1.
Employees were given little notice. Members were forced to find somewhere else to play. Homeowners who bought houses on the golf course now had weeds in their back yards.
Crescent Oaks is like a mall without its anchor store.
"I think for a majority of the employees it was a total surprise,'' said Richard Evans, the head professional at Crescent Oaks before it shut down. "It's like we were kicked out on the street and we couldn't get our stuff back. I'm still missing stuff, like a video camera that is gone. We have no recourse.''
Crescent Oaks is a relative newcomer. It opened in 1991 and quickly earned a reputation as one of the nicer layouts in Tampa Bay. The championship 6,865-yard, 18-hole course was designed by golf course architect Steve Smyers with the technical expertise of former PGA player Jim Colbert.
The course was well kept and enjoyable to play. In 1999, membership was at 386, with 600 golfers total, Homeowners Association president and country club member John Miolla said.
The club was purchased by Crescent Oaks Partners, LLC in 2005 and enjoyed a few more years of prosperity. But by 2008, with the economy starting to lag, membership fell off. There were just more than 80 members by the time Crescent Oaks Partners let the course fall into foreclosure.
Membership at Crescent Oaks in 2009 included an application fee of $500 and monthly dues of $391 for family membership or $372 for individual.
"Membership had been diminishing for about 21/2 years,'' Miolla said. "I'm not the owner, but it has to be marketed well. It's one of the best courses in the area. It's a great layout, and I say that not just because I live there.''
According to Evans, the course was fading even before it shut down. Money wasn't being spent on grass seed or chemicals. There was no course superintendant. The fairways started to get overtaken by weeds, and the greens weren't kept up.
"It was a very exclusive club, a very good layout,'' Evans said. "But they just let it go. It wasn't in good condition.''
Bill Stafford, a partner with Crescent Oaks Partners, did not want to talk about the decline of the golf course.
"No comment on that,'' he said before hanging up.
Caught off guard
Bill DelliBovi worked at Crescent Oaks for the past 31/2 years. He worked in the pro shop, the cart barn and anywhere else he was needed. He was prepared to go into work the morning of Nov. 1, but he got a call the night before about the closure.
"I was at home on Halloween night and they called me to say they were shutting the doors,'' DelliBovi, 62, said. "We knew that membership had dropped considerably, but they still had Christmas parties planned and member/member tournaments. The owners sure didn't tell anybody, let's put it that way.''
Evans, 58, had been at Crescent Oaks for only three months. He knew the course was struggling but didn't know how much.
"(The owners) were up front in terms of telling me they were having difficulties,'' he said. "They felt they could turn this thing around with my expertise as well as with what they were trying to do. We had a whole marketing plan. I was excited. But they just ran out of money.''
Evans quickly realized that it was hard to get new members when the course was in rough shape. And with no money being put into it, the product wasn't going to get any better.
Members were leaving for nearby Cypress Run or Wentworth or other private courses. And Evans couldn't blame them.
"That's the name of the game nowadays,'' he said. "People are stealing from each other. Whoever has the best product is where the golfers are going to go. You have to have the golf course. That's No. 1. They fixed the other parts. The chef was great. But they just didn't fix the golf course.''
Miolla, 73, has lived in Crescent Oaks for 16 years. He has been the Homeowners Association president for eight years. Asked if he saw the course closure coming, Miolla said, "Yes, I did.''
According to documents dated Oct. 21, Wells Fargo Bank began foreclosure proceedings with Crescent Oaks. Quinn A. Henderson, one of the lawyers handling the case for Wells Fargo, said the proceedings are ongoing.
Miolla said the Homeowners Association offered to pay for course maintenance until a buyer is found, but Wells Fargo said it will pay to maintain the course until it secures an owner.
The first order of business is to get the electricity and water turned back on. Then they need a groundskeeper to get the course back in shape. Miolla said work on the course is expected to begin by the end of this week, much to the relief of nervous homeowners.
"I was hearing concerns,'' he said. "It's private property. It's not owned by the community. And only about 20 percent of the homeowners are actually members of the club. They didn't know what was going to happen.
"Personally, I'm 73 years old. For me, golf is not the most important thing in my life. I'm more concerned about the property values of the community. They will be substantially reduced without a golf course. We're going to get this thing opened sooner rather than later.''
When it does open, Miolla said it will remain a private golf course, though some public play might be allowed with Paradise golf discount cards.
"Our documents, which can't be changed, call for it to be a private golf course,'' Miolla said. "In 2003, when I got involved, the board had a lawsuit against the country club because they were allowing Paradise members in. The courts ruled in favor of the golf club. We had a legal stipulation drawn up between the owner at the time and the community that they remain a private golf course. They can subsidize their income in the same manner that other private country clubs are doing" — by allowing some outside play, including golfers with Paradise cards, during the economic slump.
Henderson said he hasn't looked at the documents signed by the previous owners and the homeowners and doesn't know what would happen should a buyer want to turn it into a public course.
Evans and DelliBovi are not currently working at a golf course. They hope to return to Crescent Oaks.
"I'm just waiting to see who the new owners will be,'' Evans said.
"It will be successful again,'' Miolla added. "It's too nice a property not to."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.