Golfers protest lost memberships

Members of the former Carolina Trail golf courses protested Friday outside a northeast Charlotte golf club, after new owners told them this week that memberships for which they paid thousands of dollars are no longer valid.

Toronto-based lender Romspen informed members recently by letter that it now owns four of the courses after buying them out of foreclosure. The letters also said Romspen has no obligation to honor memberships purchased under former owner Jeff Silverstein.

That last news sent Scott Chapin, a Carolina Trial member and retiree, into action.

Chapin, who said he paid $4,000 last year for a lifetime membership, decided on Thursday to organize a protest against Rompsen’s decision. He said he contacted fellow golfers and roughly four joined him to demonstrate outside the entrance of Highland Creek, one of the Carolina Trail courses.

On Friday, the protest moved to The Tradition golf course off Prosperity Church Road. A handful of protesters drank coffee, ate bagels and held signs that said “Don’t drive your members away” and “Don’t play here.”

The members protesting Friday said they had lost $55,000 as a group.

Chapin, who is 62, estimates he has lost roughly $10,000 between his “lifetime” membership and earlier memberships for which he still had time left.

Another protester, 66-year-old Ken LaBrie, said he still has time left on the five-year membership for which he paid $5,500 2 1/2 years ago. He would like Romspen to honor at least part of his membership, and offer members a discount on golf cart fees. If Romspen doesn’t, he said he won’t play again at the Carolina Trail courses.

“They are throwing away the guys that are there day in and day out,” he said.

Peter Oelbaum, vice president of special projects for Romspen, said his company sympathizes with members who paid for something they now cannot use. But Romspen is under no legal obligation to honor memberships sold by the prior owner, he said.

“The current owner received no revenue from any memberships sold prior to the foreclosure,” Oelbaum said.

Former members have a right to be upset, he said. “I don’t think they should be upset with us. We weren’t party to the deal that they made.”

Also, from a financial perspective, Romspen cannot have people who had time left on their memberships playing for free, he said.

“We now have a golf course, and we need to have paying customers on that golf course, or we can’t make it work,” Oelbaum said.

The Carolina Trail had suffered for much of the past year from unpaid taxes and workers complaining that they weren’t being paid on time or at all sometimes.

Romspen, the primary lender on five Carolina Trail courses, foreclosed on the properties after loans went into default. Romspen affiliates now own four of the courses: Birkdale, Highland Creek, The Divide and The Tradition.

The company is in the process of buying a fifth Carolina Trail course, Waterford, in Rock Hill, out of foreclosure. That deal is pending.

Other courses in the Carolina Trail group were also foreclosed on and acquired by new owners recently. Hunting Dog Capital, a San Francisco-based lender, took possession of Skybrook Golf Club in March after it was put into receivership. Hunting Dog said it is not honoring memberships sold before the receivership.

Hunting Dog said it will honor short-term memberships that were sold when Skybrook was in receivership. Those memberships will be honored through the end of the year, according to a message to Skybrook members.

And developer Johnny Harris is exploring redeveloping the Charlotte Golf Links course after it was shut down. The 187-acre golf course will likely be redeveloped into a new, planned project, though Harris and the Rea family, which own the land, haven’t disclosed details yet.

Oelbaum said Romspen plans to make improvements to the Carolina Trail courses.

“There are deferred maintenance issues and some (capital expenditure) issues that need to be addressed, no question,” he said. “The amount of money we’re going to need to spend is substantial.”

The new owners have said people who had valid memberships at the four clubs will be offered discounted rates.

For Chapin, that’s not good enough. He said it would still be cheaper to play at other local golf courses that are in better shape.

Chapin said he’ll keep protesting at the courses until Rompsen comes back with a better offer for former members.

“If I can get guys to join me, I’ll keep protesting till late fall – till the end of golf season,” he said. Staff writers Ely Portillo and Eric Frazier contributed.

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