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East County Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010 7 years ago

Concede Nothing

by: Mark Gordon Observer Staff

Bruce Cassidy has played on some of the best golf courses in the world, but his home course in east Manatee County could prove to be his toughest stroke yet.

Not just because of the scattered hills, tricky greens and water hazards that make up The Concession, the private-membership course he has lived on with his family since spring 2006. Instead, the new, self-imposed challenges stem from the fact that late last year Cassidy spent millions of dollars to buy the golf club and memberships side of The Concession.

Cassidy, a recently retired steel-and-mining industry executive, bought majority control of the 520-acre, 18-hole golf course and its newly built $20 million clubhouse and dining facility. Cassidy bought his stake in
The Concession from prominent Sarasota developer Kevin Daves, who will remain a minority owner of the course and the majority owner of the residential side of the project.

“There are other places I could put my money and get a much better return,” Cassidy said. “But I love this club and want to see it do well.”

Cassidy declined to say how much he paid for his ownership stake in The Concession. No matter the price, though, it’s a risky bet in what some consider to be dark days for the golf industry, and more specifically, the industry of building homes around golf courses and clubs.

In fact, several Gulf Coast homebuilders that once developed glorious golf-club-home communities are following a new trend: the retiree that wants to go kayaking, biking and hiking, with golf just another sport on the to-do list.

And even in good economies, golf courses aren’t profit machines. The operations tend to be high-cost and low-margin.

Still, Cassidy is game to turn The Concession into a success — although he isn’t blind to the challenges.
The club currently has about 100 members, with plans to cap its fulltime membership base at 300.

“Club membership is a very real challenge,” said Joe Wills, The Concession’s general manager, whom Cassidy hired in December. “It’s something we think about and work hard on every day.”

A full membership to The Concession cost more than $100,000 in 2009, a big obstacle to overcome in a recession. That fee has since changed, although Wills declined to elaborate on how much, saying only that the club has “rolled out several exciting new categories of membership to appeal to a broader market.”

Cassidy said an attainable goal would be to sign up 75 full members over the next three years. Attainable, yet daunting.

“There is probably no more difficult time to get into the golf club business than today,” Cassidy said. “But looking down three to five years in the future, I think this is place people will want to be.”

Strategy shift
Cassidy said he plans to spend even more of his own money to see that dream come to fruition.

“You have to have something people see as special,” he said, to outdo the competition.

One avenue toward that goal is The Concession’s $20 million, 30,000-square-foot clubhouse and dining area. An official grand-opening celebration of the clubhouse, which has been open for a few months, was held Jan. 23.

The clubhouse, despite its expensive price tag, is actually a byproduct of the recession.

That’s because The Concession’s original owner, Sarasota developer Daves — who brought the Ritz-Carlton to Sarasota 10 years ago — made a key strategy decision for the club in 2007. That’s when Daves decided to pump money into the clubhouse instead of the home sites. He thought the latter would be a losing effort, given the residential downturn already under way.

“It was pretty obvious to me that marketing (the homes) was not the answer,” says Daves. “We could have had a $10 million marketing budget and still sold nothing.”

So Daves focused his attention, and financing, on the clubhouse, with the thought that it could ultimately become a magnet to recruit new members. One advantage: The bulk of the construction took place in 2008 and 2009, when few other similar projects were under way on the Gulf Coast. That allowed The Concession to get the lowest rates and the best crews out of Sarasota-based Kellogg & Kimsey, the lead contractor on the project.

Daves sold his majority interest in the clubhouse to Cassidy last summer, in a deal that closed in October. Daves held on to his majority stake of the 1,230-acre residential side of The Concession.

He also held onto his optimism for the project — despite a yearlong dearth of sales and a foreclosure lawsuit filed against him and his development company last year.

The suit, brought by Wachovia Bank, alleges that Daves failed to repay the bank a $22 million loan on the second phase of the residential side at The Concession. The suit doesn’t include the first run of homes nor the golf course and clubhouse.

Daves and his attorneys, however, deny the allegations in the lawsuit and have filed a countersuit in Manatee County Court against the bank. Daves says he was current with the terms of the loan agreement and the bank also failed to conduct good-faith negotiations with him and his business partners on other payments and lot sales. “We think the bank is being a predatory lender here,” Daves says.

The case is slowly proceeding along to court, although Daves says attorneys on both sides recently held some early-stage settlement negotiations. He maintains his belief that when the Concession clears this hurdle and the economy for large luxury homes returns, he and The Concession will be in great shape.

“There will be a time when these home sites will become viable again,” says Daves. “It sounds crazy now, but the market will change.”

Good eats
In the meantime, the clubhouse at The Concession, designed and decorated by nationally known designers Adrienne Vittadini and Pamela Hughes, is dotted with luxury details. That includes the oversize fireplaces and the plush chairs that make up the card tables outside the locker room.

“There’s nothing pedestrian in here,” Wills said.

And there’s also The Concession’s pièce de résistance: the clubhouse restaurant run by Sean Murphy, owner of the Beach Bistro, an award-winning restaurant on Anna Maria Island. Murphy said he plans to bring some elements of the Beach Bistro out east.

Wills, whose past golf-club career stops include a stint as assistant general manager of Augusta National, in Georgia, says Murphy’s involvement turns The Concession from merely sweet to sublime.

“I’ve worked in a lot of clubs, and I’ve never seen a club with a culinary aspect as flawless,” Wills said.

Wills grew up in the Tampa area and he rates his return to the Gulf Coast to work for The Concession as a pinnacle of his career. That includes his years as vice president of the Sea Island Club in Southeast Georgia and his work at Augusta, site of the Masters Tournament.

Plus, in addition to the club and inside facilities, there is the golf course itself. The Concession golf course, designed by golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, has been regularly ranked as a top private course in the country by several industry publications. Golf Digest named it the best new private course in the U.S. in 2006 and the number five overall course in Florida in 2007.

The Concession gets its name from the final hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup Match held at Royal Birkdale, in England. That’s where Nicklaus, in what is still considered one of the best acts of sportsmanship in the sport, conceded a 2-foot putt to the British-born Jacklin. The gimme led to one of only two ties in the history of the Ryder Cup.

Defying doubters
Cassidy, however, concedes little when he plays The Concession. “I’ve played a lot of courses,” Cassidy said. “This is my favorite.”

Cassidy, the son of a truck driver who grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, made his money in the steel-and-mining industries. In the 1970s, with an associate’s degree from a local community college, Cassidy got a job as a line engineer for Advance Mining Systems, an Ohio-based company that manufactured steel beams and products used in the underground mining business.

Over the next 10 years, Cassidy worked his way up in the company and was ultimately appointed president and CEO in 1986. He led the company on an expansion into the Midwest and Virginia and it soon attracted potential buyers.

Cassidy left the company when it was sold in 1991. He worried at the time that the new owners were going to drive the company into bankruptcy — a predicament that later came to fruition.

But at that point, Cassidy had already started his own steel company that also catered to the mining industry. That company, Excel Mining Systems, surpassed $200 million in annual revenues by 2006.

Cassidy, thinking about his future retirement, sold the company in parts over 2006 and 2007. Not wanting to completely get out of the business life, Cassidy has maintained ownership in several other companies. One of those is a steel business, run by his son, based in eastern Pennsylvania.

Cassidy officially retired from Excel Dec. 31, just in time to focus on his latest challenge: Excel Golf, the limited-liability corporation he formed to buy out Daves’ interest in the golf course and membership side of The Concession.

Cassidy actually has something of a kindred spirit in Daves: Both businessmen have defied doubters over their careers and share a passion for perseverance.

In Daves’ case, he turned an 11-acre site in downtown Sarasota into the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, a luxury hotel and condo building that now partially defines the city’s downtown skyline. Daves overcame several hurdles to get the project built, only to open in November 2001 during the post 9/11 tourism meltdown.

Actually, Daves is probably saying some of the same things now that he said in late 2001, when the Ritz struggled to get going. One difference now is the name behind the challenge.

“When the market comes back,” says Daves, “The Concession will hopefully start at the top.”

Contact Mark Gordon at [email protected].

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