When John Klemish, adviser to the chairman of The Greenbrier, the iconic resort in southeastern West Virginia, heard I was going to be residing at the property, he asked if I would like to have a free night’s stay at one of the million-dollar homes at the Sporting Club, The Greenbrier’s single-family residential development.
I told him I would, because I was hearing some very positive things about what was going on at the resort since it was acquired by Jim Justice, the former CEO of Bluestone Coal, in 2009.
I was also intrigued by the fluctuations in the golf course market since the turn of the Great Recession.
Toward the end of 2011, Donald Trump agreed to pay $170 million for Miami’s Doral Golf Resort & Spa, a luxury property that had been in bankruptcy. Although better known for his grand, urban developments like Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump has been acquiring upscale golf courses for more than a decade and has now accumulated almost a dozen properties from California to the Northeast to Scotland.
Trump knows a good bargain when he sees one, and the Doral investment was a typical investment for him. It’s a good time for other moneyed investors as well, as golf properties, especially stand-alone courses, are selling very cheaply today. The median price of an 18-hole golf course was $4.5 million in 2006, but now is $3 million, according to commercial real estate brokerage Marcus & Millichap.
Golf communities are a whole different ballgame, however. The people who do it right have managed to survive the Great Recession and, as they say in clubhouses, are greatly improving their play.
I spent a day with Klemish viewing the Sporting Club properties and talking about the surprising success of The Greenbrier market, but I also checked in with Southworth Development LLC, a Haverhill, Mass., company that develops what it calls residential resort-branded real estate communities, which are essentially golf communities.
Southworth Development, like the Trump organization, has been buying upscale golf properties, many of which were financially weakened by the Great Recession.
Klemish had been director of residential sales at The Greenbrier for five years when it was owned by the rail company, CSX Corp., leaving in 2005 to do the same for a series of Caribbean resorts. He did so well, he retired to St. Bart’s. Then Jim Justice gave him a call and he was back at The Greenbrier.
The Sporting Club has been a very successful venture. Of the 500 master-planned lots on the property, 400 have been sold. The remaining lots are effectively owned by the developer, Jim Justice. Of the 400 lots, 200 have been built out, and when I was there I saw innumerable homes owned by the titans of industry.
This doesn’t mean no problems; there were a handful of foreclosures and prices had slipped about 30 percent from peak in late 2006-early 2007. Different neighborhoods make up the Sporting Club, and, for example, homes near the clubhouse were sold at a minimum of $1.2 million. In August 2005, one home was resold for $4 million. Today, that house can be purchased for $2.5 million.
"We had few pure investors," Klemish said. "There was some speculation, but most of the acquisitions were done with cash. There were few bank loans."
Nevertheless, when Klemish came on board again in 2009 his goal "was not to worry about the 100 lots Jim Justice bought from CSX, but to clean up the resale list."
He has done that.
"Since I have come back, we have sold one property every eight days through this economy," he said. "That’s since May 2009. That’s over 100 properties. Mostly that has been resale with a just a handful of foreclosures."
The secret of the Sporting Club’s success is the fact that The Greenbrier was an existing community with stable finances — no debt. More importantly, the amenities are completely built out.
"We are not one of 85 developments out there trying to figure out how to finish the pool or buy the next lawn mower," Klemish said.
This has been the key issue: too many new golf course communities too late to the game.
"If you had everything (infrastructure, amenities, etc.) in before the recession began, you were probably sold out by 2007 depending on the size of project, so you made it out OK," said Rowland Bates, executive vice president of Southworth. "If you were permitting through 2006 and started infrastructure development in 2008, got into the ground in 2009, you were dead."
He explained that "golf communities are front-ended projects, and the amount of infrastructure and development — golf courses, club houses, utilities, etc. — that goes into these things is quite massive. If you don’t have ongoing sales, then these projects go sideways fairly quickly."
Southworth was formed in 2005 and began picking up properties starting the following year. Today, it has five golf course communities: Creighton Farms, Va.; Machrihanish Dunes, Scotland; Meredith Bay, N.H.; PGA Village – The Bahamas; and Renaissance, Mass.
Southworth is in the market for more properties.
"We have been evaluating golf course communities for the last several years," Bates said. "We can buy them for much less than replacement costs. Many have infrastructure on the ground with lots ready to sell. We can monetize quickly."
So what does it take to make these troubled properties work?
Bates was quite frank. "It takes capital," he said. "You have to have deep enough pockets to weather the slow absorption of sales as well as creating the golf facilities."
Operationally, golf communities are a different breed, he said. "This is a very specialized, almost hospitality-oriented business. The whole positioning is unique. We market lifestyle as well as the product. Anyone can build a house anywhere. You want to them to build in your specific community."
Klemish would agree.
"To be successful selling a golf community, you don’t sell golf. You sell the dreams, the legacy, the lifestyle and connecting with family," Klemish said.
By the way, a couple of hints from the pros: The worst lot to own is about 200 yards to the right side of the fairway because most players are righty and tend to slice the ball; the best lot is behind a green with water between the house and green because almost no one hits it over the green, approaches are mostly short, but if they do hit an errant ball, there is water and the crummy player can’t walk into your yard to pick up the ball.