Fianna Country club owner says closure not an ‘idle threat’

story by Ryan Saylor

While the Fort Smith Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposed planned zoning district for a proposed $20 million renovation of Fianna Hills Country Club, its future before the Fort Smith Board of Directors is far from certain. What is more certain is that the owner of the club is ready to close the doors if the Board rejects or significantly amends the new zoning district.

When the PZD comes up for a vote at the Board's April 1 meeting, at least one group of residents will come armed with a petition to limit possible uses within the PZD, according to Lisa Clay, who is leading the petition efforts.

"We are asking that (the Board) approve it as amended," she said.

The amendment, Clay said, would remove several property uses from the PZD, including medical concierge, doctor office and clinic, residential detached, family group home and professional office.

"I think that the main issue is the professional offices, medical and doctor offices and clinic," she said, adding that there is concern of what could happen to the country club should the planned $20 million development by developer Lance Beaty with Fort Smith-based FSM Redevelopment Partners fail.

"Our main issue is if the country club doesn't have enough interest, if he doesn't have that, then what is he going to do with the country club? I asked him this and he said he would use it for one of the proposed uses."

Clay's petition, which has more than 200 signatures, has attracted a lot of attention, including from the Fianna Hills Property Owners Association. FHPOA President Pat Ross said his organization has been supportive of the proposed development of the country club ever since Beaty brought the idea to property owners.

"We support the building of the Fianna Hills Country Club and Suites as Mr. Beaty has proposed and indicated he was going to do," Ross said.

But Ross said his view of the project changed following a presentation to the association by Clay, in which she explained what could happen should the country club under Beaty's ownership not be successful. As a result of the petition and Clay's assertion that Beaty could convert the country club into offices or even possibly develop the golf course into homes and apartments under its current R-2 residential zoning, Ross said he spoke with Beaty.

"Mr. Beaty called me and we started talking. I told him the board supports him building the country club and the suites. We're fully supportive of it," Ross said. "He said the (original business model of obtaining) 500 members at $30,000 apiece will probably not work. That will probably never come close to working. Basically what I'm going to do is build an office complex there and build homes on the golf course. I said that's news to me and I was not aware of that. That's where the property owners association has come in and said we'll support a new country club or renovation, but we're not supporting anything other than that. The PZD needs to sustain itself exactly where it is. The country club, we're in favor of it remaining there. That's kind of where it is."

Reached for comment, Beaty denied telling Ross that offices and homes were part of the plan.

“That comment is simply not true or is completely out of context,” Beaty said.

Beaty said his plans are to construct the country club as presented to the FHPOA and the Planning Commission. Should it need to be scaled down, it will be — all depending on market conditions.

“The plan out there is what you might call an A10 plan. If we have to go down to an A7 or A5 plan, depending on what the market will support, I will. But I’m telling you the highest and best use of that property is a club and golf course,” Beaty said.

Clay has said she has concerns regarding any sort of so-called plan B from Beaty's group and has said residents are looking at their own options should the amended PZD fail to be approved. She said there is also interest in Fianna Hills from a Dallas-based developer, ClubCorp.

"They buy country clubs that are failing and keep them a country club. They don't have a plan B that has the option to turn it into a professional office complex. So those are two pretty good options. We (wouldn't) have to worry about Mr. Beaty's plan B. Let someone else buy it who will keep it a country club."

Reached for comment late Thursday (March 27), ClubCorp Communications Specialist Patty Jerde would neither confirm nor deny that the company is looking to purchase Fianna Hills Country Club. David Mille, the owner of Fianna Hills Country Club, and Beaty said they approached ClubCorp and Troon Management. ClubCorp was not interested, but Troon has said it is interested in managing the golf course and club if Beaty is able to gain city approval to proceed on the $20 million project.

As for whether the Board will approve the originally proposed PZD or an amended version as requested by Clay and her petitioners, it is anybody's guess. Polled in just the last few weeks, there was not consensus on how the Board would vote.

Even without a consensus in the Board's responses to The City Wire, Clay said she felt confident an amended PZD would pass.

"We've heard back from most Board members, but we're still meeting with Board members. The response has been positive. Most are completely on board with keeping it a country club and member suites. They are still investigating and trying to learn more about a plan B and what these other uses could do for the community."

Mille, who owns Mid-South Steam Boiler and Engineering, scoffed at Clay’s assertions that there are ulterior motives with the plan.

“That’s totally ridiculous,” Mille said when asked about Beaty wanting to close the club to build an office complex. “Think about that. … He’s got hundreds of thousands of square foot of open space remaining there (former Phoenix Mall). He surely doesn’t want to turn the golf club into an office complex when he’s got all that other space at Phoenix that he’s trying to sell for office space.”

Mille also countered talk that others were willing to buy the club if Beaty’s plan were not approved, saying that he has not been approached with any offers. He also challenged assertions that his talk of closing the club if Beaty’s plan is not approved is just a hollow threat.

“It’s not an idle threat. I assure you. My problem is that I’ve been subsidizing the operating capital of that club for years, and it’s gotten to the point that it’s taking a toll on me financially. And if he (Beaty) doesn’t buy it, i’m going to close it immediately.  … when it starts to hurt your other businesses, I mean, I’m just not going to do it anymore.”

Continuing, Mille noted: “These people opposing this and spreading rumors and bad information to try to stop this, they don’t see what they are doing to Fort Smith. I have a lot of friends who are members there and I enjoy having a place for them to buy a drink or whatever, but I can’t keep subsidizing all that just because they are friends. … Nobody is lining up to do this (buy the club), and so if this (Beaty plan) doesn’t work, you’ll see a lot of weeds and grass on the course, because I’m not doing it anymore.”