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.

"There is this feeling among older members," she says, "that ultimately somebody would cash in."

By 1990 there were rumors that the club would be sold to real estate developers for homes, she says. Under the club's deed restrictions, that is a distinct possibility, but the rumors proved false and the club continued to limp along on loans from its members.

When Jim Davis and his wife Janice Buchholtz joined the club in 1991, they had to choose between being regular members with voting privileges for a $500 initiation fee, or associate members without voting privileges at $300. Associate members paid $5 more a month in dues, and were assured that they could upgrade to regular membership at any time by paying $200 more in initiation fees, Davis says. They recalled noticing a black algae problem at the pool, and uncertain as to how the club would work out, they decided to stay out of its politics and just try to enjoy the place. It is a decision they now regret.

Almost everyone on both sides of the sale agrees that the club has been mismanaged. By several accounts, the club manager for the past several years was rude and defensive when members offered suggestions about improving the place. She often sat chain-smoking behind closed doors in her windowless office. When people called the club's office to inquire about membership, their calls were not returned, says Davis. The books were a mess; for several years the employment taxes for the club's workers were not paid, and the IRS is hounding it. Last November the manager went on vacation and never came back.

As rumors surfaced last fall that the club was for sale, Davis and another associate member, Patrick Devine, applied to upgrade their memberships to regular, or voting, status. They were told they couldn't do it, because in January 1995, the 36 regular members voted to close the memberships and consigned to themselves equal shares in the value of the property. Devine was outraged and sent a letter threatening to sue. An intense young lawyer who resembles a lean, redheaded Pete Rose, Devine filed a class-action suit in March on behalf of all the associate members, naming his wife Catherine, who had been a lifeguard at the club as a teenager, as lead plaintiff.

Realizing the club was likely to disappear, Davis and Devine decided to seek outside expertise to determine if the club was savable. Davis called the Club Corporation of America, a huge operation that runs luxury clubs all over the world, and one of its top executives recommended Jack Hrad, a Florida consultant with extensive background in running Texas clubs. Hrad flew into Houston for two days in December, says Davis, and prepared a report that said the club could be saved.

The demographics of the neighborhoods near the club were changing, Hrad reported, and more and more young families were moving in, just the kind of people to whom the place would appeal. The club needed about 250 members to stay solvent, and Hrad gave a low-cost strategy for increasing membership, cutting dues and improving services. A young professional should be hired to manage the club and recruit members, Hrad reported, and the food and maintenance should be contracted out. Davis thought he had the information he needed to turn the club around, but when he went to the club's board asking to present it to the entire membership, he was told he could not use the club's facilities. So he rented the auditorium at nearby Lovett Elementary school in January and held a meeting that 200 people attended.

But the board turned down the report. "They were saying it was hopeless," says Davis, "that they don't know how to do it successfully. But we found they didn't want to do it."

Even after Devine had filed his lawsuit in March and it became uncertain how soon a sale might transpire, the club managed to drum up 58 summer members, Davis points out, a sign that it is still an attractive place. Davis says he offered to buy the club for the amount of its debt, which has been estimated at $250,000, and turn it over to a new nonprofit corporation. Devine and Davis met with the club's attorneys on June 4 to discuss such a deal that would end the lawsuit, but the next day they learned that the board had accepted an offer from the Jewish Community Center for $835,000. JCC president Gerald Merfish says his organization will operate the club for "recreational" purposes, but that it is too early to tell what those purposes will be, or whether the pools, which duplicate a service the JCC already offers, will be kept open.

Susan Taylor, an attorney for the club, says that Davis' offer was much too little, and that the club's debts far exceed $250,000, a figure that the club's former president, John Glover, has given to a suburban newspaper and had cited to Davis in a February letter. She says because of the complexity of the club's tax liability, its bookkeeping problems and potential legal bills, there is no telling what the club's debt is. Glover was out of the country and unavailable for comment, and the club's current president, Bob French, refused to talk to the Press.

One of the voting members, Barbara Adair, says she and her husband have been members of the Meyerland Club since 1959, and that the associate members are too new on the scene to know what they are talking about. They have no idea of the difficulty of running the club, she says.

"Some of them had an opportunity to join," she says. "Now that they found out about the sale, they're trying to get their hands on some money. It's just greed as far as I'm concerned."

"If it were just greed," responds Patrick Devine, "we would let them sell and sue after the sale."

Marcelle Henry, a voting member who stands to benefit but is opposed to the sale, says she hopes that by the time it's over, no one makes anything. After all, the club was donated to the members, and some regular members have made no greater investment in dues than some associate members. Jim Davis estimates that if the sale goes through, the regular members will not make much, and shakes his head with some bitterness.

Some older members were encouraged by regular members to drop their voting status in exchange for lower dues, says Davis, a move that also lowered the number of people to share in the sale. Davis says he and the other associate members just want a chance to raise their children in the same idyllic setting that the older members enjoyed in the '60s and '70s, when the club was in its prime.

"We're talking about people," he says, "who have sold out their neighborhood for a few thousand dollars.

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Michael Berryhill