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By Steve Urbon - www.SouthCoastToday.com
December 06, 2011 12:00 AM

DARTMOUTH — The Hawthorne Country Club was auctioned off Monday morning for $2.5 million to Kevin Santos, owner of the Waterfront Grille in New Bedford.

Santos immediately made it clear he has no interest in selling it to a developer but rather that he wants to repair and upgrade the facility and keep it in the golf and banquet business.

TD Bank had foreclosed on the property after the estate of the late owner, William Schuler, failed to meet payments. The auction attracted a half dozen bidders and a crowd of about 75 people in the building's parking lot.

Auctioneer Dan McLaughlin tried to open the bidding at $2.5 million but got no bids until he went down to $1.5 million. From there, it came down to a contest between Santos and Carlos Rafael, owner of a large New Bedford fishing fleet and scallop facility.

But Rafael stopped bidding at $2.4 million: "I'm out." And Santos, standing next to him, won with a $2.5 million bid that McLaughlin let hang in the air for at least a minute.

Rafael told The Standard-Times that in his estimation the property, which includes the clubhouse, banquet facility and nine-hole golf course with an expansive view of the Paskamansett Valley, is worth between $1.9 million and $2.1 million. "The building has problems," Rafael said. "For one thing, it needs a new roof. That's $100,000. And the kitchen needs to be improved."

When the bidding passed $2.1 million, "that was the ball game," he said.

But that didn't deter Santos. "Hawthorne Country Club is a magnificent piece of real estate," Santos said. "I have lived in Dartmouth all my life and I don't want this to go to a developer.

"We're going to continue operations as existing." The kitchen, he said, needs a rehab, along with other improvements.

Santos cemented his bid with a $20,000 deposit check; the remainder of the price must be paid within 30 days or the property goes to the second-highest bidder, which would be Rafael.

The future of the 55-acre club has been uncertain since Schuler died in March.

The Tucker Road club, which has been in business for more than 40 years, closed Nov. 20 after holding the last scheduled events, but the staff remained hopeful that the closure was just for the season and that it would reopen by spring.

Pam Williams, the club's controller, said Hawthorne in October began warning customers who had booked events there for next year or beyond to look for alternative venues.

It held all of the remaining weddings and other events planned for this fall and returned deposits to people who booked future dates, Williams said.

Anne Arsenault, manager of the banquet facility, said she is pleased that Santos intends to preserve "this important landmark."

She said it was important that the club managed to refund all of the deposits to people who had booked events. "We'll keep them on the books," she said. "There's a potential bright future, and the golfers would like to stay here, too."

She said the transfer to new ownership is "very happy but very sad" but she thinks highly of Santos, whom she knows for his ownership of the very successful Waterfront Grille.

The property is classified as recreational land under state law, Chapter 61B, which provides preferential tax treatment in return for preservation.

The club's banquet space includes a main room that can hold up to 350 people. It employs up to 55 people, mostly part-time, during its busy season.

Schuler, who lived in Marion, bought the business in 1969 and sold it in the mid-1970s. He bought it back in 1984.

Auctioneer Daniel P. McLaughlin, center, points to Carlos Rafael, far right, for one last chance to top the final bid posted by winner Kevin Santos, far left, at the auction of the Hawthorne Country Club in Dartmouth Monday. Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times

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