After a seven-year legal battle with homeowners, Wilson Gee is working toward a Nov. 1 reopening of the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course.
He has settled a $1.2 million tax debt on the 101-acre site that he closed in 2013 and is now planning to reopen a year ahead of the deadline set last October by a Superior Court judge in a contempt hearing.
“I have a different attitude,” he told AFN. “I’m not fighting. They beat me up. I’m good, my partners are good. They say, ‘look, it is what it is. Let’s just move on.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”
Tim Barnes, the attorney who has represented homeowners Linda Swain and Eileen Breslin in a legal fight that went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court and almost before the U.S. Supreme Court, said he is reviewing Gee’s infrastructure plan.
He also said he doesn’t know if the course’s long-dormant irrigation system is still in a usable condition, although Gee said he’s not worried about it.
“I’m basically putting back the course,” Gee said. “Even though people said we butchered and destroyed it and took everything out of it, we didn’t take anything out except the putting green.
“But the irrigation system – everything is still in there. The (sprinkler) heads are still there. For seven years, they’ve been sitting there. I had my consultants look at it. They felt we can put it together again for maybe $250,000. That’s basically rebuilding the well, rebuilding the pump station and allowing a $50,000 or $75,000 budget for the heads. The heads are obsolete – I mean they’re not computerized, but that’s OK.”
Gee said he aims to restore the course pretty much the way it was when he bought it in 2006.
“We’ll rebuild all the bridges, put the water back in (the lakes) and it will be the same golf course on the west side,” he said.
On the other side of the course, he said, “in order to break even, we’re going to extend the driving range.”
He said the course would be 18 holes, as it was before, but that he will be using at least four that would be devoted to being used as a “teaching facility” so that newcomers to the game, mainly young people, can learn to play golf.
As for a clubhouse, it will be a modular “sales office” type building with no bar or restaurant but only bathrooms and a changing area. He might bring an occasional food truck out on the premises, he added.
And there will be no golf carts, he said, noting “it’s a flat area and people should walk anyway.”
Moreover, he noted that carts can wear down the grass – and would be no match for the new, more resilient type of grass he’s planting in May that will stand up better to the salt content in the lakes.
“Hopefully we’ll have the irrigation system ready to go in April or May, test everything out, then overseed sometime in October. Our goal is to open for business Nov. 1.”
Gee said he has not made a big deal about an accelerated reconstruction of the course because “people don’t believe me.”
“The palm trees are trimmed already. The pumps already are taken out and are being repaired. I just quietly did it, though it’s no secret: people can see things are moving there.”
“I kept my mouth shut because whatever I say, people would just attack me,” he added.
Gee’s reconstruction of the course comes five years after he had sold the it to The True Life Companies for almost $9 million.
True Life had planned to create a new subdivision called Ahwatukee Farms that would have 270 single- and two-story homes, a five acre community farm an extension of the Ahwatukee-based Desert Garden Montessori School, hiking trails and a small café.
But to get that plan implemented, True Life had to get a majority of the Lakes’ approximate 5,600 homeowners to agree to change the land use regulations for the site.
Despite a costly and aggressive campaign, the homebuilder failed.
Superior Court Judge Hannah twice ruled in favor of Breslin and Swain and ordered that the golf course be restored – although a court has never specifically said what kind of golf course had to be constructed.
Last October, Superior Court Judge Theodore Campagnolo found Gee was in contempt of court and set a series of sanctions if he failed to meet certain deadlines for rebuilding the course that would have totaled $3.5 million if the course was not opened by the fall of 2022.
Gee said he and his partners in the ownership company, ALCR, had contemplated filing for bankruptcy and walking away from the site, writing off a $10 million loss.
“Then after thinking about it, I said it’s 100 acres in the middle of the city,” he explained. “There’s value in the future somewhere somehow. Maybe there’s more sensible people 10 years from now.”
So, Gee explained, he and his partners brought in some new partners, recapitalized the site to the point where they could pay off the taxes and invest in the course’s reconstruction.
Because the site was no longer being used for golf, ALCR lost a discounted tax rate that state law gives golf courses. As a result, ALCR owed close to $3 million in back taxes and penalties, but the County Assessor’s Office cut that liability by more than half.
Gee said he doesn’t expect Ahwatukee Lakes to make a profit and that “hopefully we’ll break even.”
“We can’t compete even with my own golf courses there,” said Gee, who owns three of Ahwatukee’s four courses and holds the note for the fourth – Club West, which he sold last year.
He said the pandemic, however, has made him optimistic about at least breaking even because more people are taking up the game.
Business at both the Foothills and the Ahwatukee Country Club has picked up, he said, because golf affords an opportunity to be outside and easily maintain social distance.
However, he lost most of the year’s lucrative wedding business at the Foothills clubhouse because of pandemic restrictions.
“This will be hopefully for people who enjoy a short game,” he said. “I’m giving people an affordable option, plus a large training facility. There’s a lot of beginners out there because of COVID and people are playing golf and they enjoy it.”
That’s an ironic change in Gee’s viewpoint since he testified last year that he closed the course in 2013 because it had been losing money virtually from the time he bought it and had vowed as recently as last year that “it will never be a golf course again.”
He said he has no plans for night golf.
But Gee said his attitude has changed as the result of the human cost that the pandemic has taken in the world.
“I think after COVID, people will realize it’s not important – all those lawsuits and things. I realize that. We do the best we can and I’m staying quiet. Leave me alone and play golf in peace.”