Four Tucson-area golf courses under the same ownership are showing financial strains, with two closed, the third having had its water shut off and the fourth drawing complaints of unpaid wages.
• Arizona National, in the Sabino Springs subdivision in the Catalina Foothills, finished a second week Friday without city water after Tucson Water shut off its reclaimed supplies due to $218,767 in unpaid bills.
• San Ignacio and Canoa Hills 30 miles south of Tucson have been closed since midsummer after the Green Valley Domestic Water Improvement District shut their water off due to what officials said were $90,000 in unpaid bills. A deal is in the works to turn the courses over and ultimately sell them to developer David Williamson and restaurateur Bob McMahon, but nothing has been announced.
• Two employees of the Golf Club at Vistoso in Oro Valley told the Star this week that they've had trouble getting paid recently. One, 18-year employee Jose Chavez, a golf course foreman, said he and other employees haven't been paid for four weeks. Kristin Krafthefer, a server at the course's restaurant, said she has only gotten one paycheck in four months on the job - and it bounced.
The courses are owned by IRI Golf Group LLC, a San Diego-based company that used to own 150 golf courses nationally but is now down to 11 due to the recession, its chairman says.
IRI Chairman Jeff Silverstein said the company is disputing Tucson's claim of $218,000 in unpaid bills, adding, "Our attorneys are working out differences with the city. I hope we'll come to a favorable resolution very shortly."
He said the Green Valley courses should be under new management very soon, and that all his company's Tucson-area courses, together, had their debts restructured and reduced by 50 percent over the past 90 days. He would not comment on allegations that employees aren't being paid.
Many if not most golf courses here and elsewhere are struggling due to the recession and changing consumer tastes. But officials of Tucson Water and the Green Valley water district said that none of their other golf course customers are delinquent.
The company's problems are causing concern among the courses' neighbors, who have typically bought homes along them over the last several decades for the views of greenery. They say ponds on the courses are dropping, getting smelly or becoming filled with cattails and other weedy vegetation. Algae has formed on top of the Vistoso and Arizona National ponds. Pima County's Health Department received a complaint Friday about mosquitoes at the Vistoso course - the second such complaint since July.
The grass is growing browner at the Green Valley courses and at Arizona National, although officials say that would happen even in a normal year at this time, when operating courses are being prepared for overseeding for new winter grass.
Frank Brooks, a Sabino Springs resident and golf course member, said he thinks it's time to quit his membership in the course.
"The longer this goes on, the more it will impact our home values," Brooks said.
"It's all about the water"
This wasn't the first shutdown of Arizona National's water, city officials say. They won't give specifics due to a standard practice of keeping water bills confidential. But letters obtained by the Star show some of the history.
In March, then-interim Tucson Water Director Sandy Elder wrote IRI it owed $72,198 in back water payments. In August 2011, the company owed $66,226, then-interim Tucson Water Director Andrew Quigley wrote IRI.
Elder would not say how many months the courses were behind on their bills this time, but said the utility treated them in line with its standard policy of discontinuing service for unpaid balances stretching 56 days. Although the total owed is far more than the course's normal charges of $56,000 over two months, Elder said the amount includes a deposit - which he wouldn't specify - needed to get service restored.
Silverstein said the company sent the city a certified letter outlining its position on Monday, heard back on Tuesday and is now preparing to reseed winter grasses soon in the belief that "we will be getting the water back on."
Tucson Water's chief counsel, Chris Avery, replied, "At this point we're standing behind that letter" that Elder sent Sept. 19.
Arizona National still keeps its greens green by drawing down a pond. The restaurant is closed. Two portable toilets sit near the entrance in lieu of bathrooms. Many golf carts won't work or break down often, Brooks said.
"What we want to do is get the golf course back, so we can play in it," said Brooks, whose late father Frank Brooks was Tucson Water director in the 1970s and '80s. "It's all about the water. In Tucson, it always has been."
Last January, the city shut off water to the Forty-Niner Country Club's course, which IRI owned at the time, because of nonpayment of bills. IRI's Arizona subsidiary sold it in May for $250,000 to a Forty-Niner resident, who got the water back on.
"I Haven't signed anything"
At Canoa Hills and San Ignacio, water was turned off in June because of unpaid bills since April, said Bob Hedden, the Green Valley water district's board president.
"My dealings with him have been long and irksome," Hedden said of Silverstein. "We have set up numerous payment plans until we finally said, 'That's it.' "
The district is considering imposing a $3 monthly surcharge on the company's 2,800 residential customers and $2,800 a month on the small number of business customers, to make up for lost future revenue, he said.
Silverstein said the new course operators would be taking over soon, and will buy them for $2.5 million, with the rest of the courses' $8 million debt forgiven.
"It's great for the community - it's exactly what we're looking for. We wanted to exit Green Valley. It's a perfect opportunity," he said.
Williamson and McMahon would not comment.
"I haven't signed anything yet," McMahon said Friday.
"Now, it's just a goat ranch"
For years, the Golf Club at Vistoso, designed by longtime pro star Tom Weiskopf, was a beautiful course and one of Southern Arizona's best, said Frank McIntyre, a golf course member.
"Now, it's just a goat ranch. It hasn't been watered. It hasn't been fertilized. He doesn't have the equipment," McIntyre said.
He and course employee Chavez said the course's water was shut off more than once over the summer, although it's on now.
"You know how hot it was before the rains came, it was terrible," McIntyre said. "It was dried out. Just burning up."
Declining to respond to what he called McIntyre's "ludicrous" statements, Silverstein said, "We're spending thousands to get ready for winter visitors. Vistoso will continue to be one of the top two or three courses in the city."
He noted that his company bought Vistoso out of foreclosure two years ago and "since then, it's been profitable every year and the number of rounds are up and the number of tournament rounds are up."
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.