Woodhaven owners may revitalize club, neighborhood

Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net

Woodhaven Country Club’s new ownership group is fronted, for the moment, by a former senior adviser to presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But Sam Fairchild, who joins new club general manager John Bailey as the only two publicly identified members of Woodhaven’s new owner group, isn’t bragging on his resume.

“I’m Sam Fairchild, and I work with John at Woodhaven Country Club,” Fairchild, former acting assistant transportation secretary to Bush, said in introducing himself to a taco dinner meeting of the Woodhaven Neighborhood Association in mid-May at the club.

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That Fairchild and Bailey, a former professional golfer, played to a full house was a good sign.

The club, which confirmed the ownership change several weeks ago, has made several moves to reverse declining membership. Among them are inviting community groups to hold meetings there at no cost, simplifying membership and waiving initiation fees, and beginning construction on a new practice area.

More improvements are coming, including lengthening the golf course, Fairchild said.

Fairchild, who lives in New Hampshire and New Jersey, said the new owners want to bring the 42-year-old club “back to its former glory” as a neighborhood centerpiece.

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Investors, including former Texas Gov. John Connally and Perry and Sid Bass, started Woodhaven in 1972 behind a vision of a scenic, hilly golf course community, and the club was a longtime focal point. Woodhaven has struggled for years with crime and code compliance issues in its apartment complexes.

“We look forward to being a catalyst of change,” said Fairchild, who has a lengthy business resume and is currently chairman of Schipol North America, which owns John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4 in New York.

Added Bailey: “We’re moving in the right direction.”

Fort Worth City Councilman Danny Scarth, whose district includes Woodhaven, said he hopes the new owners can draw out the club’s value as an “underutilized resource” in Woodhaven.

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“If that exists within the investors of the country club, we want to work with them,” Scarth said.

A strong country club would fit the vision of the Woodhaven redevelopment plan that was completed several years ago; it calls for using the club as an amenity for future senior living. The plan also calls for a small city square and light commercial services.

“The club is in the center,” Scarth said. “As the country club goes, so goes the neighborhood.”

The first visible sign of change after the ownership change came in mid-May, when construction began on a practice area at the club’s entry, including a putting green and pitching and chipping surfaces. The project also includes the relocation of the first tee box.

“It’s going to look beautiful,” Fairchild said. “It’s the first tangible evidence that there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Several community groups that had stopped meeting at the club because of the high cost are beginning to return. The Woodhaven Neighborhood Association’s May 21 meeting was its first back at the country club in several years.

The club’s new owners has replaced its complicated membership structure with four levels: $50 a month for a social membership, $160 for a junior golf membership, $200 for a senior golf membership, and $220 for a full golf membership.

Fairchild declined to specify what the club’s membership is, saying his group is trying to verify the financial numbers. Fairchild said membership is likely lower than what former owner Lou Scoma represented.

Fairchild said he plans to confer the title of “ambassador” on community leaders willing to help sell the club’s story.

To make the scenic, leafy golf course more challenging and appealing to tournaments, the owners expect to lengthen it to between 7,000 and 7,100 yards from the current 6,400 yards by moving the tee boxes back.

That project would run in the “six figures” and could begin as early as this fall, Fairchild said.

Fairchild promised more improvements as membership and event bookings build. He declined to say what his group paid for the property or what it plans to invest.

Scoma told community leaders that the new owners promised to invest at least $1 million in improvements, but Fairchild said that’s not true.

He said his group wants to lower the club’s environmental footprint through more efficient water use and other systems.

And they want to improve the look of the 100-plus-acre club, whose 18 holes wind throughout the Woodhaven neighborhood, he said. The owners want the club to be perceived as a good value, Fairchild said.

“We have no intention to ask for increases in monthly fees, for example,” Fairchild said. “We think that’s not a necessary component of this club’s success.”

Fairchild described the new owners as a loose collection of seven partners who bought all the shares in the club from Scoma.

“Somebody knew somebody who said let’s go look at this,” Fairchild said, explaining how the group became aware the club was for sale.

“This is an urban community with a suburban feel that has a golf course right smack in the middle of it,” Fairchild said, describing part of the appeal.

He said the ownership structure will likely become more formal later. Bailey is the only one of the partners who lives in Fort Worth, Fairchild said.

Scoma has not responded to requests for interviews from the Fort Worth Business Press.

Community leaders are taking measure of the new owners.

Fairchild’s resume includes numerous senior executive roles in alternative energy, financial services, manufacturing, technology, business services, real estate, and aviation and aerospace.

As Air New Zealand adviser and “shadow CEO” between 1999 and 2002, he developed a new strategy for the airline after its Ansett Airlines unit shut down.

Scarth said the new owners’ courting of community groups is encouraging. Major groups left the club because the previous owner had “tried to attack each one of these things as a money-making opportunity,” Scarth said.

“We want it to be a real focal point for the whole neighborhood,” said Bill Jackson, president of the Woodhaven association. “I think it will benefit the neighborhood and the club.”

Various big-picture trends stand to benefit Woodhaven, Scarth said.

On crime, primarily in apartments, “we have made great strides in the last four to five years,” he said.

Woodhaven has 23 apartment complexes and more than 4,500 apartments, which were largely developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

With the end of the recession, investors are putting money into multifamily complexes again, and rehabs are generally cheaper than new construction, Scarth said.

As a result, owners of at least five major properties in Woodhaven launched improvement projects coming out of the recession, he said.

Finally, at least a half dozen Woodhaven apartment complexes have loans that are tied up in bundles of loans sold to investors, making it impossible for owners to get new financing or to invest, Scarth said.

“Banks end up with them,” Scarth said.

Those 10-year loans are coming due in the next two to three years, which will unlock those opportunities for new owners, he said.

The city also is considering dissolving its Woodhaven Tax Increment Financing district and establishing a new one, Scarth said.

Because of depressed property values, the existing TIF generates no money. A new TIF would start at a lower base, he said.

Incremental property tax growth could be used to offer development incentives for purposes such as demolition and rerouting of streets and water infrastructure.

Scarth said he sees an opportunity for senior living on the country club property in the area now occupied by its tennis courts.

“It’s not really as popular as it used to be,” said Scarth, who has pitched the idea to Fairchild. “I think you could take the tennis courts and do a [small] senior living complex.”

Fairchild said his group is listening but is some distance from committing to a project like that.

“Until we get the data and verify its accuracy, until we get a true read on the willingness of the community to step up, we can’t commit,” he said.