BONITA SPRINGS — Bonita Bay Club isn’t so private or exclusive anymore.
A new preview program allows new members to join the club without paying any initiation fees. They don’t have to live behind the gates of Bonita Bay, one of the most well-known golf communities in Southwest Florida.
“Now it’s open to anyone for nothing,” said Bonita Bay resident Art Herman, who is miffed about the change and has recently resigned from the club.
Bonita Bay Group _ the community’s cash-strapped developer _ announced the program last week as a way to draw new members to the club, which it has been trying to sell to members.
Under the plan, golf members can pay about $800 a month to be part of the club and put no money down. Sports members can pay about $200 a month and can play golf April 16 through Dec. 31 at the guest rate, according to a posting on the community’s Web site BayWatchNews.com.
Preview members would be allowed to bring guests.
Current members and residents — who paid anywhere from $30,000 to more than $100,000 to join the Bonita Bay Club, plus their monthly dues over many years — question the fairness of the new program.
“Anybody can play there now and enjoy all the club benefits without having to pay any initiation,” Herman said. “All you need now is a credit card.”
He paid $65,000 in initiation fees to join the club. He resigned a few months ago over his frustration with Bonita Bay Group.
“It’s devaluing the membership equity, as well as the real estate values,” Herman said of the new program. “We are taking a supposedly exclusive country club and opening it up to the general public.”
He said a similar program a few years ago allowed outsiders to join the club, but they still had to pay an initiation fee, which made it more equitable.
He said most members he’s talked to are against the policy change.
“They are just giving away memberships to get the dues,” Herman said.
Jennifer Laderer, a Bonita Bay Group spokeswoman, said the developer had no comment on the plan.
The preview membership will expire Jan. 1, 2011. After that, participants would have to purchase a non-refundable membership and pay a fee, which doesn’t appear to have been set yet.
Former members who have resigned can’t join as preview members.
In a forum on BayWatchNews.com, Linda Heckel advocated for the new program, saying it would be a “plus for all the current members.”
She said the original preview program, which included initiation fees, did help the club by bringing in more money. She pointed out that the community’s advisory board supported that plan and that under the new program members would decide to stay on would pay a fee at the end of 2010.
Bonita Bay Group has been looking to sell off all of its recreational clubs as soon as possible. It has struck agreements with members in Mediterra and The Brooks, who expect to purchase their clubs in the next few months.
The developer has been negotiating to sell the Bonita Bay Club to its members, but no agreement has been reached. Talks are ongoing.
Meanwhile, some members have taken legal action against Bonita Bay Group to try to recover deposits they say are owed to them. Last year, the developer abruptly stopped honoring its 30-day refund policy for deposits when members resign.
Last month, Bonita Bay Group said it would start reimbursing one resigning member for every three new members who joined the club. Without getting initiation fees from new members, Herman and others question whether that policy will now change too.
Townhall meetings are planned in the community on Nov. 11 and Nov. 14. Members will hear updates on efforts to get Bonita Bay Group to use the money it makes on the club exclusively on the club, and an update on various lawsuits.
Some members have discussed signing a letter of mass resignation to try to force an agreement on the turnover of the club, Herman said.
“Upset is too mild of a word. People are absolutely livid,” he said.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.