By Gloria Lloyd
Tower Tee is coming back. That was the news last week from developers McBride Homes and J.H. Berra Construction, who found a buyer for the former Affton golf course property in an Affton native who lives in Arizona, Steve Walkenbach, and his best friend and business partner, Lindbergh Board of Education Vice President Mike Shamia.
The two South County natives plan to redevelop the 27-acre former golf course and recreation complex as a facility that preserves Tower Tee’s spirit while providing a more modern experience. Its target date for opening is fall 2020. The new recreational complex will keep the name Tower Tee while adding “exciting new services and offerings,” according to the announcement.
McBride Berra is stepping away from $40 million in revenue from its potential subdivision, according to its announcement of the new project.
Tower Tee closed in July 2018 after operating for 55 years as a facility with a driving range, golf course and batting cages.
Developer McBride Berra proposed a 158-home “Arbors at Tower Tee” subdivision on the site in November 2017, taking both Affton residents and Tower Tee owner Steve Lotz by surprise. At first Lotz fought back against the sale of the land to McBride. His family had operated Tower Tee under a lease from land owner KSDK Channel 5, which had since been bought out by Tegna.
Even after McBride dropped those plans, Tegna announced it was still selling the land, but would allow Tower Tee to continue through July. Lotz threw a farewell party in July.
More than almost any proposed development in St. Louis County history, Tower Tee was beloved to generations of St. Louisans who grew up going there. That devotion inspired Affton residents to attend the County Council nearly every week to protest any development at the site and ask for their beloved Tower Tee to be brought back. Many suggested that the county buy the land to operate as a county park. They didn’t want a housing development: They wanted to save Tower Tee.
The ringleader of the efforts against a housing development at the site was Affton resident Michael Burton, who even ran for County Council to oust 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.
Speaking at his first council meeting, Burton said that he and his father had gone to Tower Tee to hit golf balls when he was young, and for years as his father worked out of town, they had talked about hitting balls again once Burton’s father retired back in Affton.
His father retired the same day Tower Tee closed, however.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Burton said of the news he’d been waiting 18 months for. “The only thing I want is to be able to hit the first bucket of balls with my father. That’s all I want, and I’ll be happy.”
Burton didn’t even know the County Council existed before he found out that it was the legislative body that would rezone Tower Tee, and he attended dozens of council meetings, filming fellow residents for a future documentary. They all wore green, and they stood up when each one would talk to show solidarity.
The council couldn’t ignore them, and came to know some of the regulars very well after so many weeks of seeing them at the podium.
Teri Pelech came to many council meetings, but she didn’t speak as often as Burton. She went up to the podium at last week’s meeting to celebrate and maybe say goodbye.
“This might be my last time here — you’re going to miss us,” she said, throwing a green lei into the air and adding “Woohoo! Woohoo! Woohoo!” The bright green lei rested on the nameplate of Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas the rest of the meeting.
At an auction last week of equipment and statues of Tower Tee, Burton bought some of the items and collected promises from nearly all the buyers of the animal statues from the mini-golf course: They were willing to sell the statues back if Tower Tee reopened. He’s not yet sure if those will be incorporated into the new Tower Tee, but he’s hoping.
Despite the intense and sustained opposition to the plan, McBride announced March 1 that it had closed on the Tower Tee property, even though it did not yet have zoning approval for the subdivision it hoped to build.
CEO John Eilermann said that if a buyer came forward and could pay the same $4 million price McBride Berra paid for the property, the company would sell.
“We said all along that we were behind the residents and neighbors of Affton and their dream of keeping Tower Tee alive,” Eilermann said. “We committed that if a bona fide buyer came forward, we would step aside. We are happy that Steve and Mike fit that mold, and are excited to see their new plans unfold while we step away and let them pursue this endeavor.”
Since McBride already owned the property, its development appeared inevitable to some.
The County Council legislator who would ultimately decide on any zoning for the site, 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, held two of a planned three town halls this spring in anticipation of a subdivision proposal coming soon.
She planned for the third town hall to be a discussion of McBride’s actual housing proposal.
But during the ongoing discussion about Tower Tee, Walkenbach’s “heart was touched,” according to McBride’s announcement. His father had taken him to the batting cages at Tower Tee when he was young. The site is a “treasure,” he said in a statement.
“Sometimes you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s gone,” he said.
But he did have some misgivings.
“Naturally, my gut instinct told me paying a premium for the land, on paper, probably did not make a lot of sense. It made sense for a home developer, but maybe not so much sense for a driving range,” joked Walkenbach. But he wanted to “pay it forward” to the community.
He and Shamia met when they both worked in the financial world at Scottrade. Shamia will run the day-to-day operations of the new Tower Tee once it opens. He also golfed and visited the batting cages at Tower Tee when he was young, before playing baseball at the Affton Athletic Association.
“It is our hope that the St. Louis community grows to love and support the new golf, baseball/softball training and recreational complex just as they did the Tower Tee of old,” Shamia said. “This project will be an exciting and sentimental journey for both of us.”
Former owner Lotz said in a statement that he “could not have handpicked two finer individuals to entrust with the continuation of the Tower Tee story.”