|By Kelly Griffith, The Orlando Sentinel,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 18, 2005 - HAINES CITY -- Some days, time-share tycoon David Siegel wakes up and just wants to be rid of his Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort. Other days, he thinks it could be a first-class retirement community.
Never mind that he bought the once-glorious resort in northeast Polk County -- which lured the likes of tennis great Martina Navratilova and served as a PGA Qualifying School -- for what many say was a "steal" at $12.75 million in 2002. He's admittedly ambivalent now.
On Thursday, he was anticipating a buyer's offer of an undisclosed amount for the 970-acre property, which includes three golf courses, 22 tennis courts, a spa, four swimming pools, three restaurants, a 100,000-square-foot convention center and a marina on Lake Marion. There are also more than 400 private homes and 900 condos in Grenelefe.
Homeowners, though, say Siegel has neglected the place, doing little to repair hurricane damage from last year and allowing parts of the property to remain in dangerous and unsightly states of decay.
"We have dinners and we are looking at concrete floors," Dan Rieth, 58, a homeowner since 1986, said of the clubhouse. "We have seen no progress."
Roof repair to the convention center valued at $664,000, approved to start in September 2004, has not been completed -- a violation of the county code, officials say.
Rotting wood hangs on the eaves of the building, where mildew is growing. Neither the new fitness center nor the convention center lobby has a ceiling or flooring.
The pool on the west side, long closed, is filled with brown murky water, and a downed tree has smashed the wooden fence -- another probable code violation, county officials said, since all pools, in use or not, must have a fence with working latched gates.
Siegel, though, is not apologizing.
While homeowners muse aloud about what has been done with insurance money since the hurricanes, Siegel says it has been spent on partial repairs to the convention center, removal of downed trees and repairs to condos and signs. He says he's getting two golf courses playable -- one is open now and a second will reopen soon -- and has reopened one of the pools.
"First of all, I don't owe them anything," Siegel, 70, said of the homeowners. "They were there before I owned it. Their property is worth more now than before we bought it."
Siegel, who owns Central Florida Investments Inc., one of the nation's top time-share companies, said he hasn't visited Grenelefe in months.
"It's not on my front burner."
Stepping onto the first tee at Grenelefe West in the early 1980s, a golfer would have been foolish to not be a bit intimidated.
"It was the cream of the crop, really," said professional golfer Mike Hulbert, 48, of Orlando, who played Grenelefe for his PGA Tour card in 1985. "It was the first real test for anyone at a real professional level."
The resort, planners for the project say, was the "gem of the county" in its heyday, shuttling visitors from Orlando International Airport to conventions and tournaments where top facilities awaited at the resort off County Road 544. Prince, Paul Harvey and other celebrities stayed there.
Sports Shinko Co., a Japanese company, bought the resort in 1987.
Things, nearly everyone agrees, began to decline after that.
"They were having a real problem with money flowing from the country [Japan]," said Bob Whidden of R.J. Whidden Associates Inc., a Kissimmee planning firm that worked with Grenelefe on expansions in the 1970s and '80s.
"They asked all their investors to cease. From there, it just fell into decay."
In 2002, the company, which owned more than 30 golf courses worldwide, filed bankruptcy. It owned 460 of 800 condos at the time.
"They just left," Whidden said. "Papers were left. Pens were left as if a person got up from the table and left the pen right where they were working."
What Siegel bought was a mess.
What happens next to Grenelefe is uncertain, but what it will not be is the Grenelefe of old. If Siegel keeps it, he says he'll invest in a retirement community, not a convention center/resort complex. He points to The Villages, the sprawling and successful retirement community spanning Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, as something he would like to copy.
Then again, maybe not.
"Why spend money on it if I'm going to sell it?" he said. "It's a lot better than it was, but it's not going to be the utopia they'd like to see."
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