story by Ryan Saylor
Fianna Hills Country Club is on life support with only one to three months of life left in it.
That was the message Club Manager and Co-owner Jim Shields brought to concerned members and neighborhood residents Thursday evening (April 3), only two days after developer Lance Beaty of Fort Smith-based FSM Development Partners announced he was pulling out of a planned $20 million revamp of the club, which would have added about 60,000 additional square feet to the club, as well as members suites and professional medical services, among other amenities.
David Mille, the club's other co-owner, was frank with those in attendance Thursday.
"But there will come a point if we cannot turn a profit, where we are going to have to close it."
Shields explained to the packed room of more than 100 individuals that a review is underway to determine if it would be possible to assess a fee to members in order to keep the club open until the end of the year, though he said the club lost about 75 members during the last few months, dropping the already lagging club membership to only 250 members.
Following the meeting, Shields said it would be a week or two before any possible assessment or increase in membership dues are made public.
The announcement that the club would stay open, at least for the time being, is a slight deviation from a previous statement to The City Wire that the club would close should the Fort Smith Board of Directors not approve a planned zoning district, which would have specified what Beaty, or other future developers, could have done with the land on which the country club sits.
He told members and guests Thursday that at the time he made the statement, he had every intention of closing the club.
"I had every intention — Jim and I both — because of the financial drain it has been on both of us over the years. I make no bones about it. There was a lot of financial drain. And most businessmen would have pulled the plug on this three or four years ago, but I've got a special attachment to this club."
Mille discussed his memories as a young man playing music in the club and the friendships he has developed in his time before and during ownership, which lead him to want to keep the doors open, even for a little bit longer.
Shields revealed that he and Mille had two interested parties that had approached them about a sale of the club, though he said at this time no formal offers have been made. One of those interested in a purchase, he said, was a private investor who became interested in the project after Beaty's plans began to receive a lot of attention throughout the community.
The other group is member-led, though he said it was a different group then that being formed by Kevin and Lisa Clay, who helped start a petition that received over 250 signatures that asked the Board of Directors to limit uses within the PZD. While the petition was presented, the Board tabled the issue until May 6.
Shields said both potential buyers have said they would want to continue to operate the club the way it has traditionally been operated versus the ambitious plans outlined by Beaty before he dropped his bid to purchase the club.
The Clays were on hand for Thursday's meeting, though Kevin Clay declined to comment for this story.
Gary Marcotte, who spoke to a small group of members following Shields' and Mille's meeting, explained that the group he and the Clays were attempting to form would offer two types of membership packages, including one similar to the Legacy Package that Beaty attempted to market, which had a $30,000 price tag attached to it, though it could be paid over time.
According to Marcotte, his group's proposal would allow Legacy members to have a vote at club board of trustees meetings, while another membership option at a monthly rate would allow use of the club and other amenities, though no voting rights.
Asked how such a model would be profitable when the current business model is failing, Marcotte said country clubs would probably never turn a profit and instead would likely turn to other ways to break even.
"There is no profitable model in a country club, if you work to break even. It's sort of like a REIT, a real estate investment trust. You're not looking to make a profit or break even. …If you can't (break even) by your business, then you have to assess your membership. It's a member-owned club."
The assessment would essentially spread out the losses to all members, something Marcotte said "Hardscrabble (Country Club) does every year."
"I would hope to not have to assess anybody. I wouldn't want to assess anybody. Actually, it would be my preference, if we did it as a club, to (do) fundraisers throughout the course of a year. Invite the public in. They can see the club. They can do this. They can have a party. Maybe gain some interest in the club because we're active in the community. Get more members and raise funds. I don't think assessment is the only option. I know that's what Hardscrabble uses and I don't blame them. I think that's a viable way, but it's not the fun way. This is for people's enjoyment. We should do fun things."