Larger-than-life businessman and celebrity Donald Trump toured the bankrupt Running Horse golf and residential project in southwest Fresno on Friday with an eye toward buying it and saving a PGA Tour event for the city.
"We're looking to try and save a very troubled situation," Trump said after emerging from the double-wide trailer that serves as Running Horse's on-site headquarters, where he met with Mayor Alan Autry and project developer Mick Evans, among others.
It didn't take long for Trump's unannounced presence on the dusty edge of the immense Running Horse project to attract the attention of local media. During brief post-meeting comments, he emphasized he hasn't decided whether to make an offer.
"We're looking at whether or not we want to do it in the first place," Trump said. "It's a very, very difficult thing."
Evans, who bought Running Horse about two months ago, said he is cautiously optimistic about Trump's interest in the project.
"When [a sale] happens, then we're excited," Evans said.
Autry said Trump did not ask for city cash, but did inquire about possible city infrastructure contributions such as road improvements.
"I don't think anything that was discussed is insurmountable if we work together," Autry said.
Evans said he met Trump shortly after noon at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where Trump landed in his private jet. Evans said their tour of Running Horse and its Jack Nicklaus-designed course was all business, with Trump asking frank questions about the project's condition.
What Trump saw was more than 400 acres of mostly weeds, several huge trenches for sunken fairways and only two holes with grass. Course construction stopped last year and Running Horse filed for bankruptcy protection in April.
According to statements at a creditors meeting Thursday, Running Horse could face creditors claims totaling an estimated $70 million.
Trump said fast action is the key to saving Running Horse. The PGA Tour event scheduled for the course in late October clearly will have to find an alternate site this year, if it is played at all. PGA Tour officials have said they might hold it at another Fresno course or in another city, but have given no indication when they'll make a decision.
The big challenge, Trump said, is saving the tournament for Running Horse in 2008.
"We have a great relationship with the PGA Tour," Trump said. "If I do it, they will come. But one of the things that is very important is [course construction] has to get started very, very quickly."
He said work must resume within 30 days if the course is to be ready for the PGA Tour event in 2008. It was supposed to be played at Running Horse through 2012.
As befits someone who co-wrote a book titled "The Art of the Deal," Trump knows how to buy troubled real estate at a discount and turn it into a moneymaker.
In 2002, he bought the bankrupt Ocean Trails Golf Club on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California for $27 million. Three years earlier, the 18th hole's green and part of the fairway had given way and tumbled onto the beach. Trump's vision and investment turned the course into the beautiful Trump National Golf Club, one of six resort-style courses he owns.
Trump said he'd do something similar if he bought Running Horse.
"We would build some wonderful houses and some wonderful infrastructure and we would build one of the best golf courses in the state of California, if not the country," he said.
But Trump didn't make his mark in American business and popular culture by being overly sentimental. For all its troubles, the Ocean Trails course was blessed with a stunning location along the coast and a local real estate market in which nearby homes were selling for $1 million or more even before the state's recent surge in housing prices.
Trump made no comment to the media about southwest Fresno. But in their tour of the project, Evans said, Trump did show considerable interest in the condition of surrounding neighborhoods.
Southwest Fresno is one of the city's historical neighborhoods, but it has largely been ignored by developers in the post-World War II sprawl to the north. City officials hope Running Horse is a catalyst to more development in the area.
All of which makes Trump's interest in Running Horse even more compelling: One of America's most high-profile millionaire developers, a capitalist whose name is synonymous with aristocratic consumerism, perhaps rushing into a financial mess and making another killing while helping transform a neighborhood.
Autry acknowledged the contrast. If southwest Fresno and Running Horse are viewed through a traditional business lens, Autry said, a Trump offer makes no sense.
"But Donald Trump knows there's a bigger picture at work here," Autry said. "He doesn't mind going into distressed areas and making a mark and bringing hope and opportunity."
Running Horse developer Evans said he will contact Trump's representatives next week to see whether negotiations are to continue.
Also on Friday, the Fresno City Council voted to continue until Thursday its discussion of whether to consider contributing city money toward the PGA Tour event's $4.5 million purse. The purse is about $2.4 million short.