Recently the ECCHO called a community meeting to inform interested citizens and area homeowners about the status of the Escondido Country Club situation, and to discuss the upcoming grass roots effort to defeat the new property owner's ballot initiative to overturn the Open Space declaration by the Escondido City Council.
What we have now is a battle between David and Goliath. 'David', in this case, is mostly older, longtime residents of the Escondido Country Club community who are trying to stop 'Goliath', a very wealthy and seemingly unscrupulous land speculator from exploiting the 2007 economic recession by buying the distressed golf course property cheap and quickly flipping it to builders eager to saturate it with motorhome-sized houses.
'David' has no leverage, no money to spend on counter advertising or campaign consultants. Many of the people in the neighborhood are facing the loss of most if not all of their long term gains in equity. Money they had planned to use to spend in their Golden Years has been lost to crashing property values due to the uncertainty of the golf course's future.
'Goliath', on the other hand, has millions available, money he can spend to dispense carefully contrived descriptions of how his project will 'restore' the community he has systematically disassembled..
When I go back to the beginning of this civil war, there was one thing that never really made any sense to me...Goliath (Michael Schlesinger) said on several occasions, his consultants advised him that to try to save the golf course was "simply not a viable option."
From that point on, the clash has been exclusively about whether or not the City of Escondido wanted, needed, or should embrace the idea of building 430 homes on the property, and the legal issue of whether Goliath had the express 'right' to do whatever he wanted to do with the property.
But what keeps nagging at me is, why is everyone so eager to accept his claim that a golf course is absolutely out of the equation?
Yes, there is evidence that Golf is in decline. All across the country, courses are closing. Rounds per year are down and revenues are too. Through attrition, the survivors will benefit and as the economy heals, many will thrive again someday.
But for over fifty years, the ECC golf course was the glue that held this community together. Yes, it went through ownership changes, bankruptcies, and scandals, but I challenge anyone to point to any institution that has lasted fifty years that hasn't experienced many if not all of those kinds of financial and administrative challenges. Times change and so do businesses. There are lots of examples of similar golf course rehabilitations nearby.
In the early 70's, the then infamous Murrieta Hot Springs Resort, and it's first class Robert Trent Jones designed golf course, went into bankruptcy. The owners, who were a mysterious mix of land speculators ostensibly connected to The Teamsters Union and some shadowy Las Vegas mobsters, had rung up liabilities of over $37M.
Rumors were that Jimmy Hoffa had an interest in making the Hot Springs his own little version of La Costa Resort, thumbing his nose at his mobster 'buddies' who had squeezed him out of that investment opportunity.Then Hoffa mysteriously disappeared...
For a little over 3 years, the golf course went fallow. In the late 70's, other local area developers were able to acquire the land from the banks holding title, and they began the process of rejuvenating the golf course to help promote the soon-to-come building boom. Once the Old 395 Highway was converted to a freeway that linked San Diego to Temecula, a housing boom began, and the golf course reemerged as one of the premier destination courses in Southern California .It is currently in beautiful condition and fully operational.
In south San Diego, the former Singing Hills Golf Course and Resort was sold to the Sycuan Indian Tribe. After years of decline, the once renown golf course had fallen into disrepair. The owners were aging and did not have the resources to properly update the facilities to compete in the San Diego tourist trade.
Now, re-branded as The Sycuan Golf Resort, offering 54 holes of golf, golf instructional and practice facilities and some 100 newly refurbished course-side hotel rooms, the resort has ranked Number One in the San Diego Union Tribune and SignOnSanDiego.com readers poll for three straight years.
In 2010, Dr. Tim Somerville, bought a nearly bankrupt, aging and poorly maintained golf course in Temecula. The Temeku Hills Golf Club course was originally built by a developer to add value to the newly constructed homes, but had little interest in it once the community was built out. At times, the course looked as though it were abandoned; seldom watered and even less often aerated, the entire complex had deteriorated to the point most golfers weren't interested in spending precious time and money there and special events booking had dried up.
Now, the renamed and completely refurbished facility, The Legends Golf Club course, is enjoying increased play and hosting special events such as weddings, birthdays and graduation parties.
In 2012, an investment group that has had a lot of success rebranding restaurants, bars and hotels in and around San Diego purchased the Former Lake San Marcos Golf and Country Club. After spending $2M on the course and another $8M on the adjacent hotel, EatDrinkAndSleep (EDS) has turned the economic corner and the residents of the greater Lake San Marcos area couldn't be happier. Home prices have regained lost equity and tourist traffic has increased dramatically. Next, EDS plans on a complete remodel of the Clubhouse.
Just recently, after another of several recent changes in ownership, the current owners of La Costa Resort, have rebranded it the Omni Hotels La Costa Resort and Spa. They have spent over $50M to completely renovate all aspects of the property including a complete redesign of the legendary golf course, plus extensive improvements in turf and water management.
Further east, the infamous Warner Springs Resort, which has had a very checkered past , has been purchased by Pacific Hospitality Group. The long history of the resort has been marked by squabbles over fractional ownership rights, water rights, and decaying facilities. One of the original marketers of fractional ownership, the property at one time had nearly 1000 owners. As a destination resort, owners could visit, and stay, for up to thirty days at a time, sharing the cottages, restaurants, pools, hiking and horseback riding trails, and playing golf, all at reduced, mutual-ownership, non-profit costs.
After many years of poor maintenance of the nearly 70 year old facilities,much of the infrastructure became obsolete, and combined with the Great Recession, the operation collapsed. After years of litigation, PHG purchased the property for $11.5 million.
Though way off the beaten path, the bones of the resort are attractive. It sits at the base of a beautiful mountain range, is just a mile or two from Lake Henshaw fishing, and a few more miles from the bed and breakfast community of Julian. Sensing an opportunity, Pacific Hospitality Group is in the process of refurbishing all of the facilities, including the golf course, to the tune of fifty million dollars.
My point is, if you want to be successful in business, you have to compete for the business. You can't just sit back and expect the customers to come to you. If you want to catch the mouse, you have to bait the trap.
Most of the examples cited had fallen into hard times, first because they took their success for granted and failed to properly reinvest, and second, the Great Recession coldcocked them into financial ruin.
Any savvy business owner will tell you it is critical to always keep your product fresh and exciting. Putting away a percentage of revenue for future reinvestment is just as important as paying the rent. Indeed, a 'rainy day' fund should also be established to help endure economic recessions.
When viewed from that perspective, it's amazing ECC survived as long as it did. None of the recent owners, going back to the 1990's put any money into the course. The sprinkler system is the same one installed in the 60's. There were some minor cosmetic improvements made to the bar, and the pool and patio areas. But even the maintenance equipment was totally outdated.
The new owners of the ECC claim that their studies say any investment in the golf course would be a waste of money. Of course, when put in perspective of the possibility of 'flipping' the property in just a few short years for a seven-figure profit, a long term investment would seem like a waste.
Obviously, Goliath is not in this for the long run.
Indeed, recent economic studies indicate that 2012 was a turning point, in some respects, for the golf industry. Sales and rounds played actually increased for the first time in many years. Besides, much of the data regarding the decline of golf nationally has to be viewed with some skepticism, because San Diego is different. It is the Golf Capital of America. In 2008, while the economy collapsed around it, the Golf business in San Diego brought $1.9B in revenue to our area, while employing 6,700 workers.
“San Diego should be considered the golf capital of the United States,” said National University System Institute for Policy Research President W. Erik Bruvold while speaking to the International Golf Conference. “While other regions may be home to more courses or have more golf-related tourism, San Diego is unique in having four vibrant cornerstones of the golf economy. The region hosts multiple professional events, supports 90 golf courses, and is home to the industry’s leading equipment manufacturers.”
The San Diego area attracts nearly 15% of its tourism specifically to play golf. San Diego enjoys one of the longest periods of playable weather days in the country, if not the world. A majority of paying golfers in San Diego are not locals. We attract 'Snowbirds' and 'Zonies' because they can't play in their respective climates for several months a year, whereas here, you can play all year round.And unlike Florida, we don't have to deal with suffocating humidity or insect attacks.
Most of the major manufacturers in the golf industry call San Diego their home. Industry icons like Tom Crow (Cobra Golf), Gary Adams (TaylorMade Golf ) and Ely Callaway (Callaway Golf) all started their companies here. Golf is one of the top non-government employers in our area.
San Diego is an attractive destination precisely because we have so many forms of recreation and entertainment, at reasonable prices, available year round. If we, as a larger community (San Diego County) allow the basic elements that attract tourism, to be cynically converted to one-time-profit developments that not only erode the character and small town charm of San Diego, but diminish the inventory of tourist attractions and at the same time change the character of our brand, we will be making a fatal decision.
This Escondido David vs. Goliath battle is not just a conflict over property rights that affects a few homeowners in a little corner of the greater San Diego area. No, this is just the beginning battle over the larger issue of what exactly is the nature of the San Diego Experience. If golf is no longer one of the important aspects of why people live, work, play and visit San Diego, then what is going to take it's place?
This battle is of special importance to the City of Escondido, since we have no beach, no real downtown nightlife, and no major tourist attractions other than Zoo Safari, we need more reasons for tourists to come here to visit and spend their money. Permanent residents need jobs, public services, and water, each and every day, while tourists pay their own way and spur job growth, which is just what the doctor ordered for our local economy.
Just recently, Escondido commissioned private consultants to study and make recommendations on how best to re-brand the area of North County including Escondido.
I has become apparent that compared to the enormous advertising budget of the San Diego Visitors and Convention Bureau, Escondido is getting lost in it's shadow.
I suggest the City of Escondido and the Chamber of Commerce, should hire their own Golf Industry Analyst; let's see just what could be done with the Escondido Country Club property if it were given the proper financial support to sustain a long term business plan,and if the will to make that plan work was embraced by the City, the greater North San Diego County business and travel industry, and the local homeowners and voters of Escondido.
Because we all know, in the end, David will dispatch with Goliath.