The Westwood Country Club – once on the verge of bankruptcy – is doing great business these days.
The club did well in 2012, according to the owners, and expects to do even better this year. Memberships are already close to selling out.
But plans to trade the country club for the Town of Amherst’s Audubon Golf Course are still moving forward – just not as fast as some expected.
“We’ve had a lot of good and substantive conversations with the supervisor, and we’re in the middle of a written proposal to him that we’re hoping to present in the coming weeks, certainly by the end of April,” said Andrew J. Shaevel, managing partner at Mensch Capital Partners, which owns Westwood.
In the meantime, Mensch has extended its agreement with the country club’s management company, Culinary Productions. The operator was obligated to provide service through the end of this year, Shaevel said, but the company has now agreed to pay higher rent and operate the club through at least 2014.
“I think that’s a very good move on their part,” said Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein. “It would appear their time frame for doing a deal was unrealistically short.”
Weinstein said he hasn’t met with Mensch representatives recently. When they last spoke a few months back, he said, he suggested that Mensch trade its entire Westwood property for only 20 to 30 acres of the Audubon Golf Course because Mensch was reluctant to offer any cash for the town golf course as part of the land-swap deal.
“I was talking money, and they weren’t talking any money,” he said.
Weinstein’s offer wasn’t met with much interest, however.
Shaevel wouldn’t comment on his group’s negotiations with the supervisor, but he did say that Mensch Capital Partners still intends to put forth a proposal in keeping with its original concept of trading the 243-acre country club for 170 acres of the town-owned golf course just across Maple Road. He also said his company would offer “appropriate compensation” for any perceived difference in value between the Westwood and Audubon properties.
Appraisers hired by Mensch have indicated that the two golf courses have similar land value, but Weinstein and other town leaders believe Audubon is worth far more as prime, undeveloped land with great commercial development potential and proximity to the University at Buffalo.
Though only Weinstein and Planning Director Eric Gillert have been negotiating with Mensch so far, Weinstein said, “If they gave us a bona fide offer, I would be duty-bound to take it to the Town Board.”
Since the start of this year, Weinstein and Gillert have toured the Westwood Country Club and said they were impressed with the condition of the clubhouse, though they didn’t do any formal inspection.
Meanwhile, Mensch representatives met with the Amherst Planning Department to determine what’s involved with the environmental review process necessary to make the land-swap deal possible. They learned it could easily take a year to complete the state-required environmental study and parkland alienation process.
“It looks like we’re past the window where 2013 would be pragmatic,” Shaevel said.
Because of the size and magnitude of the proposed swap, which involves about 400 acres of property and a dramatic shift in land use for the Audubon parcel, Mensch Capital Partners will have to undergo the most intensive environmental impact review available under state law.
That involves creating an environmental impact statement addressing, in great detail, everything from traffic to water and air quality, and impact on community character, said Assistant Planning Director Gary Black. The process also requires a high level of public input, an analysis of proposed alternatives for land use and a complete response for any and all concerns raised in regard to the proposal.
The last time such a lengthy state environmental review was required locally was when Benderson Development attempted to transform the Buffalo Shooting Club – adjacent to the Audubon Golf Course – into the Amherst Town Centre, Black said.
Shaevel said his group hopes to have the Westwood-Audubon deal far enough along that Mensch can begin the process of alienating the Audubon Golf Course as town parkland by the 2014 state legislative session.
The goal remains to have an agreement in principle with the town by the end of this spring. Once that occurs, the Westwood owners could commence the environmental review process and pursue the necessary state approvals. Ideally, he said, both Mensch and the town could close on the properties by the end of 2014.
“We continue to explore our options with the Westwood site,” Shaevel added, “in the event that we are unable to reach a win-win agreement with the supervisor.”