Trump sees need for speed on golf course

Billionaire developer Donald Trump said Thursday he hasn't changed his mind in the week since he made a whirlwind visit to the bankrupt Running Horse golf and residential project in southwest Fresno.

He still might make an offer, but a deal must be done quickly.

"I have a feeling I can make this the hot side of town," Trump said in a telephone interview from his New York City headquarters. But, he added, "certain things" he declined to identify first must come to pass.

One of those apparently is City Hall help in securing the property required for a planned 500-acre project that is supposed to have a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and 780 home lots. Only two holes have been finished, no homes on the course have been built and Running Horse's new owner filed for bankruptcy protection on April 27.

Running Horse creditors learned at a May 24 meeting that the project is about 80 acres short of controlling what is necessary to build everything.

Mayor Alan Autry said Thursday he plans to speak in person with some of the owners of property vital to the project's success should Trump make a bid.

The approximately 80 acres are in six parcels, each with a different owner. Autry was circumspect about his intentions, declining to say if he will speak with all six owners or only a few. But the mayor revealed the gist of his agenda:

  • The owners' property is vital to the project's future.
  • A successful project is vital to the future of southwest Fresno.
  • Time is running out on a Trump deal, in part because work must resume in a month or two if the course is to be ready in October 2008 to host a scheduled PGA Tour event.
  • Earlier perceptions of the parcels' value, perhaps sparked by negotiations with Running Horse's original developers, were "not rooted in reality."
  • In other words, Trump and the landowners could be headed for a classic free-market showdown: How high will Trump go with his offer?

    Autry said his intent is to be fair -- and frank -- to all parties: "Time is not an ally. This is no time for games ... I want to make sure that, for everyone we talk to, there's a high degree of clarity."

    Trump in his phone interview said "everything is going to hell" at Running Horse, calling it a "wasting asset" in several ways.

    One is physical -- construction on the course stopped last year and the huge trenches that are to be sunken fairways have turned into sites for illegal dumping and off-road courses for motorcycle riders.

    Another is less tangible but equally important to Trump: the PGA Tour event that was supposed to be at Running Horse at least through 2012, but obviously won't be there this year.

    Construction "has to get started immediately or you won't have a PGA Tour [event] for years to come," Trump said.

    Looming over it all -- over Trump's vision for a project he says can be a "spectacular success," over Autry's desire for a project that spurs development in a long-neglected neighborhood, over the landowners' right to a fair price for their property -- is the Running Horse bankruptcy.

    Bankruptcy documents filed Tuesday listed 299 creditors. Secured and unsecured claims, unpaid loans and liens totaled more than $36 million.

    Trump said at a brief news conference at Running Horse last week that a key advantage to buying a property out of bankruptcy is the new developer starts fresh -- the old financial and legal burdens are gone.

    But no one is predicting how a Trump deal satisfactory to a bankruptcy judge can be reached in time to permit construction to resume in 30 to 45 days on a golf course whose prompt completion is pivotal to retaining a star-crossed tournament vital to the success of a project now little more than a mile-and-a-half-long hole.

    "We have to save it," Trump said of the project Thursday.

    Added Autry: "There's no use trying to kid ourselves. This is a Herculean task. Fortunately, we have a fella [Trump] involved for whom Herculean tasks are not unusual."

    Also Thursday, City Manager Andy Souza told the City Council the PGA Tour event won't be held in Fresno in 2007, but should be in 2008.