PLANT CITY — Millions of dollars — and a way of life — are at stake in the future of a shuttered golf course in the heart of the city's largest development.
Financially-strapped Visions Golf plans at least 200 homes and a 110-unit assisted living facility on the 18-hole course called as The Hills in Walden Lake.
Managing Partner Steve Mercer said Visions Golf needs money from sale of the land to pay off $4 million in debt and sink as much as $2 million into the remaining 18-hole course and clubhouse known as The Lakes.
Developers are lining up for the chance to start new homes in Walden Lake, an affluent development that has been built-out for a decade.
Visions Golf plans to file for rezoning in about 60 days.
Some residents say they are angry about the plan and feel betrayed.
Shelly Orrico, whose home is beside the shut-down course, is organizing neighbors for a fight. She said The Hills, where she used to see wildlife including a bald eagle, has become overgrown with weeds.
“Now we have snakes, rats and mice coming into our back yards,” she said.
“We bought into a golf course community. Why should we take the fall for their problems?”
Orrico has filed complaints about the course's condition with the city's code enforcement office, which states Visions has complied with its requests.
Orrico and next-door neighbor Sharon Philbin are spearheading opposition to the rezoning plans, including a petition drive.
Mercer said Visions Golf is being forced to sell about half of its 300 acres to raise enough money to save and refurbish the The Lakes course and other amenities that make up Walden Lake Golf and Country Club.
Visions Golf has struggled since buying the course in 2006 and filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago.
Mercer blames a tough economy that has rocked the golf industry.
“When people have to start to cut back, golf is one of the first things they cut. It's not just here; it's everywhere,” he said.
Mercer said the financial troubles boil down to economics: There are only enough golf rounds being played at Walden Lake to support one course. Full membership in the country club has plummeted from a peak of more than 700 to 125 today, he said.
Mercer said he can understand why residents are worried and the company plans to buffer the new development with trees and shrubs.
But that's not enough, Orrico said. She maintained years of poor maintenance have driven away golfers.
“He ruined his own business by mismanagement. Why does it fall on me,” she said.
Mercer denied his management is to blame, adding the courses are maintained as well as possible. He said he hears a lot of bitter words from a lot of angry people. “When they don't have the information, they make up information,” he said.
Visions Golf's plans for the property include:
◆ Partnering with developers who will build 200 to 220 homes on The Hills course. About three-fourths will be single-family homes.
◆ A 15-acre, 110-unit assisted living facility that includes care for memory-impaired. The facility will employ up to 75 people.
◆ Paying off more than $4 million in debt on the two courses.
◆ Investing $1.5 million to $2 million to improve the remaining 18-hole course, refurbish or replace the clubhouse, and make other improvements.
◆ Bring in a professional management company to maintain the remaining course, The Lakes.
“We feel like this is our best chance as a company to survive,” Mercer said. “We don't want to make a killing but we want to make it.”
Visions Golf is owned by about a half-dozen area residents, including Mercer. He said the company can't afford to keep covering losses.
“Does it make everybody happy? No. But it's something we have to do if we're going save the course,” he said.
O<CHARENTITY>7</CHARENTITY>rrico would like to see Visions Golf sell to another company that would operate all 36 holes, but Mercer said no potential buyers are willing to do that in a down economy.
Orrico and her supporters, meanwhile, continue to circulate petitions asking the city to deny rezoning. They have about 700 signatures so far, she said.
“We're not going to give up this fight.”