Developer’s offer to sell Hacienda Hills Country Club deserves tough scrutiny by AAC

When we learned last week that The Villages Developer was hoping to sell a failed country club to the Amenity Authority Committee, two words immediately came to mind – Buyer Beware!

And then, after giving it some more thought, we just couldn’t get a popular phrase out of our collective heads: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Amenity Authority Committee is being asked to consider whether it wants to purchase the sagging Hacienda Hills Country Club.

By now, we’re sure most of you are aware that the Developer has floated the idea of selling the sagging Hacienda Hills Country Club to the AAC, which is rightly always on the lookout for land and facilities that can be used to offer Villagers ways to enhance their retirement lifestyle. The group, which represents Villagers living north of County Road 466, plans to examine the potential purchase closely before making any decisions down the road.

In case you’re not familiar with this facility, its history is less than stellar. While it offers a restaurant, swimming pool, tennis courts and parking lots, the country club also comes with a history that should make any potential buyer stop and think.

The restaurant at the Hacienda Hills Country Club was shut down last year right before Thanksgiving after a health inspector discovered unclean surfaces and roaches.

Right before Thanksgiving last, year, the facility’s restaurant was shut down – one Villages-News.com reader was told it was because of a ventilation issue – after a health inspector discovered unclean surfaces and roaches, among other disgusting issues.

A new manager with restaurant experience was brought in to attempt to right the ship at the renovated country club. But its long history of living on the edge with health inspectors, complaints about poor service and mediocre-at-best food didn’t exactly make the country club a “must” among Villagers and their guests.

Last February, the pool at the facility also was shut down after an inspector found problems with the chlorine and pH levels. It was one of many pools in the community that were shut down at one time or another last year in the mega-retirement community for similar issues, but it also was another black mark against the facility the Developer now wants to jettison from the ranks of his Central Florida business empire.

The pool at the Hacienda Country Club was shut down last February after an inspector found problems with the chlorine and pH levels.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Developer has come knocking with a building he’d like to unload. Longtime Villagers will remember that the AAC found itself in a similar situation in 2013 when it purchased the old El Santiago Club restaurant from the Developer for $350,000. At the time, the late Rich Lambrecht – a well-known protector of amenity fee dollars – was serving on the AAC and quickly expressed skepticism about the purchase.

“We don’t know if it’s full of mold or what condition it’s in,” he said at the time.

The old El Santiago Club restaurant.

Guess what. The AAC purchased the building and quickly found out it had been snookered into acquiring a giant lemon. And there was a great deal of debate among residents who wanted the restaurant to remain as a gathering place for the nearby neighbors.

“At one time, El Santiago was a very busy restaurant. But as you know, that business went down and down. If there was a strong demand to run a business at El Santiago, it is my belief that the Developer would have had a contract with someone to run that restaurant,” AAC member Carl Bell said at the time.

Ultimately, Bell and his fellow AAC members rightly decided they weren’t in the eatery business and the unstable building was demolished. Today, a beautiful and popular recreation center sits on the property and residents in the nearby Villages seem quite happy with that decision.

A crew from Mark Cook Builders demolishes the El Santiago Club restaurant.

Amazingly, just a few months later, the worn-out-building-pedaling Developer came calling again, this time with the offer to sell the Tierra Del Sol Restaurant to the AAC. Still reeling from the sting of the entire El Santiago Club debacle, the AAC wisely said, “No thanks.”

Later the Studio Theatre at Tierra Del Sol and Tierra Del Sol Bar & Grill took over the old restaurant space. And the theater, headed by actress Whitney Morse, has proven to be quite a popular draw and a nice complement to the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.

The old Tierra Del Sol Restaurant.

On the other side of the coin, the allure of the Hacienda Hills Country Club is simple – the AAC is starved for land. This past Wednesday, the group heard from the head of The Villages Lawn Bowlers Club, who was seeking a second area for his members to use. And he’s far from alone in the long line of Villages groups seeking additional facilities to use.

Not surprisingly, AAC members have shown they aren’t afraid to jump on available property when it’s the right situation. The recent purchase of The First Baptist Church in The Villages proves that. That property off SE Hwy. 42 will become home to a much-needed new recreation center dedicated to first responders.

The former home of the First Baptist Church.

The Hacienda Hills proposal also comes at an interesting time, as a split AAC last week voted to remove the deferral rate on amenity fees. That means the cap on those fees will no longer exist.

And that means that all eyes should be on the AAC even more as they spend Villagers’ money going forward.

If you are a resident living north of County Road 466, we encourage you to reach out to your AAC representative and share your thoughts, or attend a meeting of the AAC. Their email addresses are below:

Chair Ann Forrester (CDD 2) ann.forrester@districtgov.org

Carl Bell (CDD 1) carl.bell@districtgov.org

John Wilcox (CDD 3) john.wilcox@districtgov.org

Don Deakin (CDD 4) don.deakin@districtgov.org

Lowell Barker (Lady Lake/Lake County) lowell.barker@districtgov.org