Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

TOP STORY >>Will the golf course become a subdivision?

Leader staff writer

“It’s a done deal,” banker Al Harkins told more than 150 Sherwood residents meeting Monday night over concerns that the North Hills Country Club and Golf Course would be turned into a high-end housing development. Harkins, president of National Bank of Arkansas, said his bank is providing the financing to the group led by a businessman in Little Rock and one in Searcy.
“The sale will go through, but the buyers are open to listening to the residents. The buyers are buying the property as an investment, and even though they have drawn up plans to build a gated community, they are willing to listen.”

Homeowners who abut the golf course are upset at the thought that the 100-acre property could be turned into housing and feel the deal is violating their bill of assurances. The meeting, set up Dalton Davies and Mike Corker, was to get feedback from residents. “This meeting is the first in a long process,” said Corker, “to see if we can save the golf course.”

“But once that bulldozer comes off the trailer and the blades go down, the party is over,” said resident Greg Meador.
Harkins said that, in dealing with the buyers, “I told them I’d like to see it stay a golf course.”

He said that a residential subdivision financially would be a better deal because it would bring tax money into the city, but as a golf course that’s something “you can’t put a dollar figure to.”

“Sherwood needs to have a golf course,” the banker reiterated, and the crowd readily agreed. One option discussed was to have the city buy and operate it. “I’d be happy to change the name on the paperwork and loan the city the money,” Harkins said.

Former Mayor Bill Harmon said the city couldn’t buy the property directly, but it could be purchased through the city’s facility board. “That’s how we bought Woody’s Sherwood Forest. The facility board bought it, and the city paid the board back,” the former mayor said.

Alderman Becki Vassar, one of six aldermen at the meeting at the Bill Harmon Recreation Center, told the crowd that the area is zoned R-1 for residential, meaning it would be hard to stop anyone from building single-family homes on the acreage.
“One of our concerns is that if the high-end lots don’t sell, then the developer could come back and ask to build apartments or condominiums, and many think we already have too many apartments.”

The new owners, according to Harkins, would also like to build a commercial strip facing Highway 107. “That could not be done without council approval,” Vassar said. Harkins added that the buyers would be willing to meet with a committee of city officials that Mayor Dan Stedman organized to look into different options.

“We can meet with them tomorrow,” Vassar said. Bob Franks, a former president of the North Hills Country Club, said that when the Matthews family deeded over the land in 1926 it was guaranteed to be a country club and golf course for 100 years. “We’ve got another 19 years. Who changed the bill of assurances?”

Franks and others are meeting with a real estate lawyer later this week to see what happened. He said city residents have used the clubhouse for 82 years. “Everyone has been touched by the country club in one fashion or the other.” Franks said the club was purchased about a dozen years ago by a country club management firm out of Dallas.

“They did a good job and then the oil industry went in the dumps and they sold the club along with a few others that weren’t making enough of a profit,” he said. A group came in, and, according to a number of residents, paid so little for the club that they in effect “stole it.”

The current management is losing money on the facilities. “If I ran my business the way they run the club, I’d sell it too, “ said resident Steve Winchester. Harkins said even if the buyers back out, which he said they wouldn’t be doing, the club would still close. “The owners say they can’t keep feeding this thing,” Harkins said.

Television personality Matt Moser, who also lives in Sherwood, said, “Most of you would agree a municipal golf course is better for all the citizens than an exclusive community of $400,000 to $500,000 homes. My question is can we stop it?”
Mayor Stedman was in Washington for a National League of Cities meeting and was unable to make the citizens meeting, but he did appoint a committee to meet with the buyers.

The committee includes the mayor; Vassar; City Attorney Steve Cobb; Keith Rankin with the parks and recreation committee; Linda Nickle, director of economics development for the city; Sonny Jannsen, director of the parks and recreation department, and City Engineer Mike Clayton.