Malice in Meyerland

Summer evenings seem to be made for the Meyerland Club. As the shadows lengthen across its thick lawns on a hot afternoon, three mothers and their toddlers cool off on the entry steps of one of the club's two swimming pools. An adventurous nine-year-old runs screaming off the high board and drops feet-first into the diving well. At the club's separate lap pool, a twentysomething coach organizes the swim team for an upcoming meet, timing his young squad with a stopwatch.

But something is wrong at this southwest suburban oasis. The swim team was organized two months late and is nowhere near the powerhouse it was in the club's glory days. The smell of hamburgers ought to be sizzling from the snack bar, but the club closed all the food service in January. Though the pools are clean and sparkling, that is chiefly because some members have loaned the club money for chemicals, and tended to the vacuuming and cleaning themselves. And more members ought to be enjoying themselves here, but if all 150 or so showed up, some would not be talking to others, for the conversation would inevitably gravitate to how and why the Meyerland Club is being sold.

A group of 36 voting members -- most of them older couples whose children have long grown up -- wants to sell, claiming the club's debts are too extensive and it lacks the amenities to compete in today's market. Under current state law governing not-for-profit corporations, the club would be required to transfer its assets to another, similar organization. No one would benefit except the organization's creditors. But that law, which was enacted in 1985, doesn't apply to the Meyerland Club, which was organized in 1958. The majority of the voting members claim ownership of the club, which was donated by the original developer, and want to sell it and split the proceeds among themselves. A group of younger, non-voting associate members has sued to block the sale, accusing the club's board of mismanagement, secrecy and greed.

The situation is a bit like the old Gene Wilder/Zero Mostel movie The Producers, says Jim Davis, a 40-year-old businessman who has formed a nonprofit group to buy the club and put it under new management. In the movie, Wilder and Mostel conspire to produce a Broadway show so horrible that it will flop, enabling them to make off with their investors' money. Davis claims that the current board appears to have deliberately mismanaged the club.

But Wilder and Mostel couldn't make "Springtime for Hitler" flop, and the board of the Meyerland Club hasn't persuaded Davis that the 38-year-old facility can't be run successfully. Whether the board mismanaged the club deliberately or through sheer incompetence makes no difference at this point, says Davis. He has paid several thousand dollars to a professional consultant who believes the Meyerland Club can succeed. Davis has offered to clear up the club's debts and put it under the management of a new nonprofit corporation. But the board has spurned his offer as inadequate.

When the Meyerland Corporation converted several hundred acres of rice farms into suburbia in 1958, it donated four acres on the corner of South Rice and North Braeswood for a private tennis, swimming and dining club. Unlike some suburban clubs where membership is a condition of buying a home, membership in the Meyerland Club was optional, and members have come from several nearby neighborhoods, including Bellaire, West University and Westbury. Membership quickly swelled to 500 or 600, and there was a waiting list to get in.

With its 25-yard-long pool, the Meyerland Club became a state powerhouse for youth swim teams, and eventually added a separate lap pool. But when the Jewish Community Center opened nearby in 1969, the Meyerland Club lost several hundred members and has never been the same. As the first families aged and their children grew up, interest in the club dwindled, and the oil bust of the '80s led to further decline. There was a time, says a real estate saleswoman and longtime member, when she couldn't give away memberships with the homes she sold in the area.

Still, the Meyerland Club had its appeal. Marcelle Henry joined in 1982 because of its separate, 25-meter, outdoor heated lap pool, one of the few of its kind in the city to be surrounded by a green expanse of lawn and trees instead of concrete. At the Jewish Community Center, she says, workout lanes are usually invaded by children, but at the Meyerland Club, the kids play in a separate pool. Deeply tanned from her year-round swimming, Henry is a voting member of the club who has protested the way her fellow members have run it. She says that of the 36 voting members, about two-thirds were hanging on in order to sell, and at a least a couple were not even living in Houston.