On more than one occasion I've heard the leadership of Farmington Woods describe our little community as "unique". Of course, it's uniqueness is defined by the fact that we are the only condominium in Connecticut that owns and operates it's own golf course. (Other condo communities have them, but aren't financially responsible for them.)
That's because in the seventies Otto Paparazzo decided it would be a great idea to satisfy the California Dreamin' fantasy of the era and create a resort community, complete with pools, tennis courts and of course the beautiful golf course that surrounds us right here in chilly old Connecticut. It was a big attraction at the time.
Fast forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century following the housing bust and the ensuing Great Recession and our uniqueness among Connecticut condominiums now stands as our biggest concern: the financial health of the golf/clubhouse operation and the effects it is having on the physical and social well-being of our lovely community. So I ask, are we really unique or simply a rusty old antique?
Unfortunately this problem is not a local one. I have read and heard stories about countless golf courses going bankrupt both in Connecticut and other states during the last several years due to both the ailing economy and the general downturn in the popularity of golf worldwide. KPMG Global agrees: "During the go-go nineties golf courses were overbuilt and the result has been devastating for the industry at large and especially for homes/condos built as part of a golf community."
Some of my readers may already know that I spent time in Arizona earlier in my life, following four years in the US Air Force, pursuing a Masters Degree in Learning Disabilities at the University of Arizona and then working as a high school special education teacher in the Tucson public school system. Though I had many out-of-state job offers when I graduated (including one in Hawaii) I had fallen in love with the desert and decided to stay.
Tucson is a great place for outdoor types. Friends and I climbed most of the great peaks surrounding the town, I found myself participating in a county slow pitch league, did a lot of miles biking in the foothills, became an avid horseman and finally got proficient at my favorite sport, basketball. A few years after I arrived in Tucson I struck up a friendship with a local golfer and started playing golf again.
Though I had lived and played golf in Connecticut and South Carolina prior to moving to the desert, it wasn’t until I met my friend Jim that I picked up the clubs and began to enjoy the pleasure of playing in the desert sun, on greens surrounded by desert flora, with warm desert breezes belying the fact that it was actually winter back home in Connecticut.
I eventually moved back to Connecticut to be closer to my aging parents and siblings and missed the warm desert weather immensely. So when I met my future wife and we got married in 1988 I decided to take her to the place I call my second home so that she could experience the beauty of the desert during the dreary Connecticut month that is April.
We made reservations at the Sheraton El Conquistador Resort located at the foot of the beautiful Catalina Mountains and the weather did not disappoint. With temperatures in the 80’s we spent every available moment outdoors when we weren’t gorging on delicious Mexican cuisine. And this may come as a surprise, but we spent as much time on the golf course as we did in the pool drinking Margaritas. It was nothing short of heavenly.
What does any of this have to do with the current golf situation at Farmington Woods? Well, yesterday I received a call from my old friend Jim. He still plays golf, but his options are now severely limited. Many of the golf resorts that were built in Tucson in the 80’s and 90’s he said, are now in bankruptcy or headed that way. Even the glorious Sheraton (now run by the Hilton Corporation), the largest golf resort in town, with it’s 400 residences and 45 hole golf course, is facing bankruptcy. He told me I could read all about it on the Arizona Daily Star's website.
Fortunately for them they have some big money backers in the Hilton Corp who continue to keep things running and some investment group will come in and save the day. The blame is being placed on the recession, but there are other factors as well, including the declining popularity of golf in one of America’s premiere golf destinations.
They are not alone. According to the Daily Star “Since the recession began in 2008, several of Tucson's resort jewels have struggled, going through foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings.
The Westin La Paloma recently emerged from bankruptcy with new owners. The J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Tucson Resort & Spa has been in receivership, and the Westward Look Wyndam Grand Resort & Spa sold for the second time in six years in February. Others, such as the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, have struggled.”
You can read the article about the Hilton here: http://azstarnet.com/business/local/another-tucson-resort-in-default/article_6c89e7cb-0311-517c-ab13-f204dd402a47.html and about other courses in Tucson closing here: http://azstarnet.com/news/science/environment/dry-times-for-some-southern-arizona-golf-operations/article_b6e229e5-4952-5ea7-b72b-c9adb9a26b83.html.
Most of these failing operations will be bailed out ultimately by investor groups who are buying them up at thirty cents on the dollar, but the golf business in Tucson will never be the same again. And that gets me back to the ”uniqueness” that is Farmington Woods.
Yes, we are unique in many ways. We are unique in that we are the only condominium in Connecticut that owns a golf course. We are also unique because we own a failing golf course that in other places would be filing bankruptcy while waiting to be bailed out by an investor group. But lastly and most tragically we are unique in the fact that long before Farmington Woods files bankruptcy many of our residents may themselves face financial disaster one day due to rising condo fees, district taxes, restaurant minimums and the resulting drop in housing values. In case you haven't heard, there are now several Section 8 properties within the gates of our community.
Think about it: Golf and sunny Arizona. They sure make a nice pair don’t they? But if you think that the Hilton is filing bankruptcy primarily due to a drop in booked rooms, think again. Consider this quote from Jerry Hawkins, a commercial real estate broker with CBRE Commercial Real Estate Services Worldwide: “On the other side of the equation is the golf course”, Hawkins says. "Golf has a significant negative impact on a lot of these resorts. You have to mow. You have to fertilize. You have to maintain. And it doesn't depend on how many people play."
So I’m kinda sad about the situation unfolding in my second home of Tucson, but I get even sadder when I contemplate the future of our own little “resort community”. I’d really like to see the course pay for itself so that we can maintain our image of “uniqueness” but when I look at what’s happening in Tucson of all places, I get very, very concerned.
And while the sun continues to shine brightly in Tucson as their golf situation worsens, the long term future of our little community in cloudy old Connecticut is looking rather bleak. With its golf membership in decline, resulting in losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars subsidized increasingly by residents, the future of Farmington Woods Condominium will be significantly different than its past. And with no clear turnaround plan in place and seemingly little motivation for change, what that future will look like is anybody's guess.