First off, it’s not technically an auction.
The property that used to be Jones Creek Golf Club will be offered for sale Oct. 6 “at public outcry” at the old Columbia County Courthouse in Appling, but while the legal advertisement for the sale makes it sound that way, it won’t be “an auction with a cowboy hat,” according to attorney Harry Revell, but a routine foreclosure.
Revell represents Jones Creek Investors LLC, the ownership group that defaulted on a $4 million loan agreement with Julian Saul, a partner in JCI and its primary financier. According to Revell, there have been “fits and starts” of interest in buying the 10-parcel, 195-acre course since the club closed its doors in September 2018, but nothing led to a firm deal.
With Saul as the lien holder, the property is looking for a new owner.
And residents of the upscale Jones Creek subdivision in Evans are eager to see who that new owner will be.
In 2011, JCI and the environmental advocacy group Savannah Riverkeeper filed a 175-page complaint in U.S. District Court against Columbia County’s government, the freight railroad CSX Transportation and several property developers. A second related suit was filed in Columbia County Superior Court.
The plaintiffs alleged that substandard engineering and a combination of factors helped cause erosion damage that deposited harmful sediment and debris into Willow Lake and downstream waterways.
The resultant pollution and disruption of water flow, according to the federal suit, harmed neighborhood aesthetics for Jones Creek and even damaged private property that included the golf course around which the subdivision grew. The course relied on the 6.3-acre pond for irrigation, and over the next seven years that the parties in the suit battled in court, the course’s owners battled overgrown vegetation, silt buildup and erosion.
In early 2018, the course owners lost their federal suit. The following September, the club announced it would suspend operations indefinitely, and the course has sat untended ever since.
“Right now we’ve been told by the lien holder, who is technically the property owner, that no one should be on the golf course,” Jones Creek resident Tripp Nanney said. “However, the grass seems to get cut in a lot of places. I don’t know who does it, but it doesn’t look nearly as bad as it has in the past. The homeowners care about the property. It’s an asset to us.”
Nanney is the president of the Jones Creek Homeowners Association. Since his family moved there 23 years ago, he has seen ownership of the course change hands several times.
“When we first came to Augusta, it was one of the top courses in Augusta — a great reputation, a lot of events were held out there, and a beautiful course,” Nanney said. “And the last tenure has just been disappointing. They didn’t do a good job running the golf course, and it just went downhill.”
So does a lot of water. When the remnants of Hurricane Sally rained down on the area last month, a few Jones Creek basements and foundations were hit with the water that even Willow Lake’s spillway can’t handle.
“When that creek fills up, that water comes down in a hurry, and the pond is not as deep as it has been in the past, so that water, prior to going over that spillway, has to go somewhere,” Nanney said.
What happens next with the golf course depends on its next owner — who might not even use it for golf.
Jones Creek Golf Club opened in December 1985. From 1986 to 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation, almost 5,000 new courses opened. That boom didn’t last, especially after the Great Recession, and course development plummeted.
Now, communities centered around golf are pivoting elsewhere. The Hilton Head Plantation gated golf community in South Carolina renovated part of its recreation area into a family pool complex. A few miles away in Bluffton, S.C., the developers of Hampton Lake — originally conceived as a golf community — told The Wall Street Journal in April that retiring baby boomers are looking less at golf and more at other outdoor pursuits.
“We’ve heard this from several developers, that years ago a golf course community, a golf course, was in like the top five — ‘I want to live on a golf course,’” Nanney said. “Now, golf is like 20-something, and nature trails and walking paths are in the top five outside activities.”
Nanney said the Jones Creek Homeowners Association took an “internal poll” to gauge the opinion of residents on what they would like to see for new neighborhood amenities. Results varied from archery ranges to disc golf courses to soccer pitches.
“I think about 60% would prefer a golf course as the amenity, but then the others prefer walking trails, nature paths, sports fields, you name it,” he said.
A “couple of companies” have expressed interest in establishing a new Jones Creek golf course, Nanney said, but negotiations tended to stall concerning the price. He said Saul, a “super-nice guy” who cared about the course, is asking too much.
“He’s got a lot of money invested, unfortunately, and the price is just too high because of the amount of money that’s going to be spent to get it back into a playable golf course,” Nanney said. “We’ve had estimates between a low three-and-a-half (million dollars) to a high of six on what it would take to reopen the golf course. And that’s on top of buying the property.”
Nanney said a group of Jones Creek residents had approached Saul informally with an offer of $1 million for the course property. Saul declined.
“And we know a couple of golf course companies have offered a million, and he said no,” Nanney said.
When contacted for this story, Saul deferred comment to Revell, the attorney representing JCI.
When the course is offered for sale Tuesday, the clubhouse and its parking lot won’t be included. That was bought in October 2019 by MBH Holdings, a limited liability company operated by Columbia County developer Mark Herbert. He leases the building to Katerwerks Events and Hospitality.
In an agreement that expires in October 2022, if someone buys the course and the ownership officially changes hands, then the clubhouse and its parking lot can be bought at full market value, Herbert said.
“I’d hate to see that happen, because we’ve already got it going as a community hub,” he said.
But even with the waning popularity of golf-course communities, 2020 has been a bad year for courses to be closed.
According to the market research firm Golf Datatech, the numbers of golf rounds played in August were up 20.6% nationwide from the same month last year. That number was down 18% for the first four months of this year, but spiked over the summer as more courses opened and more people embraced the combination of outdoor activity and social distancing during COVID-19.
“I mean obviously we’ve missed the last six or eight months of the best golf in the history of golf because of what’s gone on,” Nanney said. “Courses are slammed and they’re full and they’re lined up to play, and we missed that. But I personally believe, and there’s a strong sentiment that believes, a high-quality golf course could do extremely well in Jones Creek.”
Legally, a golf course is the only thing the land can currently become. According to the “planned unit development” regulatory process that governs the subdivision, the fairways, greens and bunkers nestled among the hundreds of homes in Jones Creek must always be zoned as a golf course. Columbia County said the only way the land could be realistically rezoned is with the consent of the surrounding property owners.
Revell said he “would love to see a serious buyer” do something with the property after its years of inactivity. But he believes it would take a cooperative effort among the homeowners association, Columbia County’s government and the next owner to bring “a successful end to the story.”