Malice in Meyerland

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"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.

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Michael Berryhill