Wilson Gee

Wilson Gee and his Japanese investors thought they were getting a great deal, selling the nine-hole Bixby Village course in Long Beach, Calif., and buying Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course and Ahwatukee Country Club for about the same price.

It was the launch of Gee’s golf empire in Arizona. He subsequently bought The Duke in Maricopa and Club West in Ahwatukee Foothills, with the sales from developers highly motivated to sell.

But Gee’s timing was less than ideal, with the initial purchase in 2006, near the pinnacle of Arizona’s golf economy. The Great Recession would quickly follow, Ahwatukee Lakes would struggle to attract players and Gee’s water costs at Club West would soar.

Gee outlined the downward trajectory of his gamble during testimony last week in the trial involving the future of the now-defunct Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course.

“I apologize. If you look at the Lakes, I was a complete failure there,’’ Gee said, after testifying in Maricopa County Superior Court in a lawsuit challenging a developer’s plans to redevelop the Lakes. “We thought it would be our best course.’’

Gee turned off the water, stripped sod from the greens and watched the course die. He sold it to Ahwatukee Lakes Investors, a spinoff of True Life Companies, after his own attempts at redevelopment attracted no interest.

The challenges of changing the deed restrictions to allow residential development, and winning a rezoning case, were daunting.

But Aiden Barry, True Life’s senior vice president, had thrived on solving problems that others could not, so the company bought The Lakes in June 2015 and tried in vain to sell Lakes residents on an “agrihood” that included about 270 homes, a farm and other amenities for the 101-acre site.

“The golf industry was going down at the time,’’ Gee testified. “We were losing money and we were looking for options.’’

He listed the course on a golf course broker’s website and got few inquiries as the recession deepened. The problem was that longer championship courses were dropping their greens fees to attract a smaller number of players.

Rounds dropped so sharply that Gee’s summer greens fees went down to $10-$12, not even enough to pay his electricity.

“Since 2007, the golf business started to go down steadily,’’ he said. “It’s just the general industry. There’s not enough people who play golf right now.’’

Maricopa County has about 300 courses and about 20-25 closed, with many of them executive courses, Gee said.

Under questioning by Tim Barnes, an attorney represented by homeowners seeking to block True Life’s redevelopment plans, Gee said he would not sell the course for $1 million, saying that he had a $4 million to $5 million investment.

Gee testified that he sold his Bixby Village course for $5.25 million and bought Ahwatukee Country Club and The Lakes for $5.6 million.

Barnes said his research determined that The Lakes’ deed restrictions could not be changed without also modifying Ahwatukee Country Club’s deed restrictions.

Gee testified that he would consent to such a change for Ahwatukee Country Club – which he also owns – but has no plans to take advantage of it. He said his purpose is to operate golf courses.

His original investor was a Japanese man who loved golf and wanted to own a course. The man died, but his three sons  followed the same approach, remaining patient as the rate of return dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent or even less.

He said Ahwatukee Country Club is “probably breaking even right now,’’ while the sale of Club West, which he purchased in 2009 from Suncor for a bargain price, is pending to a new owner.

Gee was reluctant to speak about the Club West sale, because it is in escrow.  The sale relieves Gee from a knee-buckling water bill of $700,000 a year, because only expensive potable city water is available.

Barnes asked why Gee bought Club West when The Lakes had already turned into a financial burden.

“They kept dropping over and over,’’ he said of Suncor’s asking price for Club West. Gee eventually paid $1.5 million, which he conceded was not a good business move in the end. “We thought there was an opportunity there. We thought it would pick up. We were wrong,’’ Gee said.

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