story by Ryan Saylor
While the future of Fianna Hills Country Club looked uncertain earlier this month, officials with the club have confirmed to members and The City Wire that the club will remain open despite claims that the club was possibly within months of closing its doors.
In a letter to club members, the country club's co-owner David Mille said efforts last year to sell the club to businessman Lance Beaty's Fort Smith-based FSM Redevelopment Partners was not the right move.
"Jim (Shields) and I thought we were doing the best thing for our families and the right thing for Fianna with introduction of the Lance Beaty group and a potential sale of the club," he wrote. "We learned we were wrong. I want to sincerely apologize for the angst, uncertainty and confusion that occurred as a result."
Beaty's plan had called for building a $20 million structure on the former club's footprint that would have included guest suites, a medical concierge service, as well as other amenities.
As the Beaty proposal snaked its way through its initial unveiling to club members, neighborhood residents and eventually to the Fort Smith Planning Commission, a petition began circulating through the neighborhood opposing aspects of the club to be included in a planned zoning district approved by the commission. Beaty eventually pulled out of the project before the PZD was to go before a full vote of the Fort Smith Board of Directors.
In his letter to club members, Mille said it was time "to stand up, shake off the dust, and move forward toward making Fianna the best club on the border and in the River Valley." As part of the effort to move forward, club members will see new management in Gary Carmark, who has accepted the general manager role in place of co-owner Jim Shields, who recently underwent surgery for a brain tumor and is still on medical leave.
Carmark said Tuesday (May 27) that his acceptance of the position at Fianna was part of keeping the club open for the long term, going so far as to say that unless he is "in my grave," the club would not close. As part of keeping the club open and attracting new membership, previous dues increases imposed on members have been reversed, he said.
"The dues increase they have done, I haven taken (them) off and it has gone back to what it normally was," he said, adding that it may cost Fianna money in the short term, but it was part of a longer-term strategy.
"It costs us some money, but if we can get some members that dropped because of it or some new members, then we'll be back where we were without the dues increase."
As for what the dues are or what the difference in monthly rates are following the change, Carmark declined to provide the information due to competition Fianna faces with other clubs in the region.
Either way, he said it was likely Mille would have to help the club out financially in some way, injecting his own money to keep it going — at least in the short term.
"As far as investment goes, I'm sure that Dave is still going to have do some investing in it himself, but what we plan to do is grow this through (increases in the number of members), basically the way it was running before."
And even though Carmark said the club is open for the long term, it does not mean Mille and Shields will not entertain offers from potential buyers, though he said any offers beyond the one from Beaty have not materialized beyond initial talks.
"I'm sure as businessmen, they'll have to at least entertain what (others) have to offer. But that doesn't mean anything (would be built on the site) but a country club, no matter what."
Shields told The City Wire in April that he and Mille had two interested parties that had approached them about a sale of the club, though he said at the time that 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 attention throughout the community.
The other group is member-led, though Shields said at the time it was a different group than that being formed by Kevin and Lisa Clay, who helped start the petition that received more than 250 signatures that asked the Board of Directors to limit uses within the PZD.
Carmark said Tuesday that to his knowledge, the only member-led group to express interest was Clay's. She did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
While Beaty – along with business partner Dr. Stephen Nelson – eventually backed away from their plan to revamp the club, Beaty wishes success for Mille and the Fianna Hills staff.
“Look, it was a deal we were really interested in. We’re both local residents and we had hoped we could make it a viable business. In the final analysis, the property had not made money in the previous four years, and we were not willing to speculate that we could change the trajectory. It was a risk-benefit analysis and it simply didn’t work for us,” Beaty explained. “They’ve (Fianna Hills) got a committed staff that has proven themselves over a period of time. I wish Jim and David the best of luck, and I consider them both friends.”
MILLE'S LETTER TO MEMBERS
It is with a humble heart yet renewed spirit that I am writing this letter. The last few months have been trying to say the least. I have learned more about this club, its dedicated staff and its members than I ever could have imagined.
Jim and I thought we were doing the best thing for our families and the right thing for Fianna with the introduction of the Lance Beaty group and a potential sale of the club. We learned we were wrong. I want to sincerely apologize for the angst, uncertainty and confusion that occurred as a result. The time has come to stand up, shake off the dust, and move forward toward making Fianna the best club on the border and in the River Valley.
I am requesting your patience and prayers as we move forward with some changes. Our president, Jim Shields, has developed a brain tumor and will be on medical leave indefinitely. Please keep Jim and his family in your prayers during this time. Gary Carmark has graciously stepped in as the General Manager. Gary brings strong financial leadership skills to the table. The staff is excited about his return as am I.
Other changes you will see is an increase in activities for the youngsters as we kick off our summer program. We listed to the requests and suggestions for the revamped cabana and I am (pleased) to announce it is now the proud home to a snow cone machine! I am also aware that the most recent dues increase has caused some discomfort to the point that we have lost members. Please rest assured that we are researching our current dues structure and significant consideration will be given to our findings.
Many of you have come to the staff and me indicating a desire to help us move in a positive direction. I truly appreciate your desire and would love to take you up on your offer. There are two things that will be significant to help the club. First, please utilize the club as much as possible. Join us for golf, tennis or a meal but also consider scheduling your birthday parties and baby showers here. Second, we need to increase our membership base. Please invite your friends to come visit our club and consider joining. Also, let those members who have left know that changes are in the works and we would appreciate their return.
I want to thank each and every one of you for your support and loyalty during this time. Please stay with us and experience the resurgence of The Fianna Hills Country Club.