Injecting energy into its facilities, amenities and membership mix has kept 122-year-old Greenville (S.C.) CC in step with the transformation of its namesake city.
Of the many cities across the U.S. that have faced the need to restore dying urban centers because of America’s changing industrial profile, perhaps none has seen as dramatic a turnaround as Greenville, S.C.
The city in the state’s northwest corner that was once a classic mill town is now earning acclaim for the success of the long-term plan that civic leaders developed, and executed, over several decades, to transform a downtown that was full of abandoned warehouses and empty storefronts into a thriving central district that is now attracting new residents of all ages.
While Greenville itself remains relatively small, with a city population of some 67,000 that ranks as only South Carolina’s sixth largest, it has repositioned itself with a much larger and more cosmopolitan regional presence. The transformation began when Michelin decided in 1975 to locate its first U.S. tire manufacturing plant in Greenville, and was furthered when BMW followed in the 1990s with its own major investment in nearby Spartanburg; BMW now employs over 10,000 in the area and has also built a popular visitor center that draws attendance from around the world.
The area has also gained appeal through the growth and rise to national prominence of Clemson University, 30 miles to the west, along with the long-standing reputation for excellence of Furman University in Greenville itself. Add the convenience of a location that’s halfway between Atlanta, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., each of which can be reached in a couple of hours of interstate driving, along with easy access to the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains in one direction and the Atlantic Ocean in another, and it’s not surprising that Greenville has been at the center of making the “Upstate” region the fastest-growing and now-largest combined statistical area in the state, with a total population that has swelled to nearly 1.5 million.
All of the strong growth and added exposure has landed prominent spots for Greenville on a host of recent “best places” lists—for young professionals to work, for Baby Boomers and empty-nesters to relocate and/or retire to, and for everyone to visit as a hot new vacation destination. In turn, this has led to old warehouses being converted to high-rise lofts and condos, to abandoned streets sprouting into pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined avenues filled with trendy restaurants and shops, and to prominent national publications like Travel + Leisure highlighting Greenville’s “radical reinvention.”
A Solid Foundation
Like many Southern cities, Greenville’s history includes a long association with a country club whose large membership has included multiple generations of the city’s most prominent and influential families. But in the case of Greenville Country Club (GCC), its close and well-established ties to the city didn’t always keep it in step with its namesake city’s resurgence.
Originally founded as the Sans Souci Country Club, the club has been at the forefront of Greenville’s golf community from its start, beginning with its Riverside course, built in the 1920s at its main location by Donald Ross protege William Langford, and then continuing with a new course, Chanticleer, that was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., in 1970 at a second property about a mile away.
Both courses quickly developed strong followings, with Chanticleer earning a spot in national rankings. And GCC has stayed attentive to enhancing its golf reputation throughout its history, giving both courses major renovations by leading designers as the new millennium began (Rees Jones for his father’s Chanticleer course in 2001, Brian Silva for Riverside in 2007). The club has gained added credibility through the membership of professional tour players including Bill Haas, Ben Martin and Lucas Glover. “Our pros are regular members, not honorary,” says Greg Hobbs, GCC’s General Manager/COO. “They just come out and play.”
GCC’s rich golf heritage is now sustained by the courses’ two PGA head professionals, Eric Pedersen (Chanticleer) and Karl Stefka (Riverside). The program continues to provide across-the-board appeal to players of all levels and ages, with Chanticleer hosting a National Senior Invitational and National Four-Ball Invitational, and Riverside serving as the primary location for the club’s long-running and robust junior program (the ultimate achievement for junior participants is to be able to earn the privilege of playing Chanticleer on their own).
“We have a lot of pride in our junior golf program,” says Stefka. “We created a position for a Junior Golf Coordinator several years ago and built a special junior putting green. We’ve held a Junior Member-Guest that attracts 40 kids and also a ‘Junior Big Break’ where they can try trick shots over golf carts and walls. And we’re the permanent host of the South Carolina Golf Association’s statewide parent-child tournament.”
GCC’s steady attention to caring for and upgrading its golf-course assets has continued in recent years with an expansion of the driving range and practice area, and the conversion of Riverside’s greens from bentgrass to Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass. The club’s course-maintenance operation, under the direction of Superintendent Craig Harris, has also taken steps to improve efficiencies and environmental sustainability through the creation of more naturalized, no-mow areas.
Harris, who has been part of the club’s agronomic operation for 17 years and in his current position for two, says that GCC has always “really done well” in taking the proactive steps needed to keep its two courses relevant and their reputations intact over the years. “There’s always been a lot of support for what we need to keep both courses, including a high-detail course like Chanticleer, in top condition,” he says. Future projects now in the planning stages, he notes, include an upgrade of irrigation systems and the installation of Better Billy Bunkers.
The combination of providing courses and programs that reach all levels and ages, and ensuring their consistent care and improvement, has fostered what Stefka calls a “very healthy” golf operation at GCC. “This year, we’ll have the most rounds ever [23,000] at Riverside,” he reports.
Chanticleer, meanwhile, will always have its special and strong appeal, thanks to its long-standing reputation as one of the nation’s best sub-7,000-yard courses, as well as one of the top examples of what the Jones father-son combination can produce.
“[The two courses combined] definitely help to attract and keep a strong golfing membership that loves to play and loves to practice,” Harris notes. “As soon as signups for the member-guest are announced, [the fields for] both courses are complete by the end of the day. And after we close Chanticleer to aerify, the tee sheets are always full again by the very next Sunday.”
Getting the House in Order
While GCC took care through the years to ensure that its golf courses and programs not only met, but exceeded, members’ expectations, doing the same with its clubhouse and other facilities proved to be more of a challenge.
Since 1950, club activities were centered in a 45,000-sq. ft. clubhouse that saw a succession of modifications as the century was completed, with the last major one being the addition of a ballroom in 2000. But as the “new Greenville”’s modern downtown emerged a few miles away, GCC’s primary structure remained much more reminiscent of the city’s old industrial past—keeping the building functional, in fact, eventually required it to contain a full mechanical shop, complete with a drill table and welding equipment, reports Clubhouse Manager Paul Rutherford.
Various plans to renovate the clubhouse failed to gain traction. As the millennium’s second decade began, Hobbs, who became GCC’s GM/COO in 2006 after a 27-year career with ClubCorp and two years as GM of Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township, N.J., saw that a critical juncture was fast approaching that called for a more comprehensive and structured approach to strategic planning, capital funding and facilities master planning. After Chambers, the Baltimore, Md.-based planning and design firm, was engaged to help promote and facilitate those processes, the GCC membership eventually voted to institute a monthly capital fee that would allow the club to move forward with a complete rebuilding of the clubhouse.
After 16 months of construction, from September 2015 to February 2017, GCC unveiled its new version—and the immediate reaction was that this might now qualify as the most dramatic transformation yet to be seen anywhere in the city.
“The total size of the clubhouse was actually cut by a couple hundred feet,” Rutherford reports. “But the members were amazed; they thought it was now much bigger.”
That impression was enhanced not only by design touches and new furnishings and appointments that created a brighter and more open look for familiar areas such as the lobby and dining venues, but also by the repurposing of much of the existing space to add a host of new amenities and functions, both inside and out.
Some of the new features that the members discovered as they saw how the previous clubhouse footprint had been fully reconfigured included:
– a new fitness center, where previously the club “had nothing,” Rutherford says;
– a child-care area that is “not meant as a day-care center,” Rutherford says, but instead as a place to drop off children for two or three hours with qualified attendants while dining or using the fitness area;
– a youth room for “tweens” and teens that includes video games and a Coke Freestyle fountain-drink machine, and a new outdoor event lawn that can be set up when needed for that demographic with cornhole, a bouncy house and other attractions. A key objective in designing the youth-oriented features of the new clubhouse, Rutherford explains, was to make it possible for the GCC staff to be able to tell kids of various ages “where they can go, vs. where they can’t.”
– A new “Riverside Café,” designed to emulate a Panera Bread store, that offers a wide variety of fresh, quick-casual fare including wraps, panini and salads, along with espresso-based drinks and smoothies. The café has been positioned in an especially accessible end of the clubhouse, so it can even be used easily by Riverside golfers as they make the turn.
Along with the clubhouse’s other revamped dining outlets, the café, which is open six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., provides Executive Chef Gerald Schmidt, who came to GCC in 2016 with extensive experience from two properties on Georgia’s Lake Oconee (Cuscowilla and Reynolds Plantation), with ample opportunities to showcase an array of menu specialties for on-site consumption, as well as take-and-bake casseroles, tomato pies and other to-go items.
The café also sells specialties like salsa and jarred peach and fig preserves made by members of the culinary team, along with breads, pastries and other treats made by the club’s new Pastry Sous Chef, John Boyle, who brought his experience from top club-dining operations at The Union League of Philadelphia and John’s Island Club in Vero Beach, Fla.
All that the café offers can be updated and promoted instantaneously through special digital menus prominently displayed behind its counter. And as an indication of its instant popularity with all segments of the membership, as well as another sign of the club’s outreach to younger members, GCC-logoed versions of the low-tech “fidget spinner” toys that have become all the rage are offered for sale in a basket on the café’s sales counter.
A Plethora of Payoffs
The clubhouse renovation also brought much-needed operational improvements, such as an in-house laundry room and consolidation of the back of the house into one larger kitchen. And, at the same time that the look and feel of the building was being upgraded and new efficiencies were being created for the staff, time was taken to recapture and spotlight GCC’s history, through creation of a special Heritage Hall and other displays of vintage photos and memorabilia.
Some of the most distinctive and salvageable features of the existing clubhouse, such as chandeliers, wall sconces, paintings and credenzas, were carefully preserved and incorporated into the redesigned rooms. GCC also raised $75,000, Rutherford reports, through online auctions of what it didn’t keep, selling everything from doors and handrails to kitchen equipment.
As part of going through all that the clubhouse contained, in fact, and in formulating a History Committee that is preparing a long-overdue club history book that will be published later this year, it was discovered that the roots of Sans Souci Country Club’s formation actually extended ten years deeper than originally thought, to 1895. While this necessitated a flurry of logo adjustments for pro shop merchandise and other materials, the new birthdate was embraced as a further tightening of the club’s longstanding connection to the city.
And as buzz about the changes taking place at the club quickly spread, a connection to the “new Greenville” quickly became much tighter as well. While Membership Director Kimberley Bagley, who took that position before the clubhouse renovation began, says she initially encountered the challenge of dispelling a commonly held reputation that GCC was oldschool and behind the times, that quickly vanished as soon as she provided details about all that was to come.
“It was easy to piggyback off the growth of Greenville, just by being proactive in hosting luncheons for realtors and attending other events where I could show everyone how we were changing,” Bagley says. “And it didn’t take long to see the positive reaction. Since we started construction in 2015 we netted 102 new members, even without the new building to show them. And the average new-member age has been 41, bringing our overall average age down four years.”
While the momentum certainly didn’t slow after the doors to the new clubhouse were opened, GCC decided to do some self-imposed brake-pumping, even though the club by-laws do not impose a hard cap on membership (GCC is an invitation-only club). A waiting list has been formed as a temporary hold on more admissions has been put into effect. In part, Hobbs says, this is because of a short-term need to make sure the club can properly handle and absorb all of the change it’s experiencing. But it’s also part of making sure it continues on the proper long-range path as well.
“We have a lot to digest right now,” Hobbs explains. “This is really our first venture into wellness with the fitness center, and now we’re going right into redoing our pool complex. We need a period to assess how all of the other things in the clubhouse are being used, too.
“I was recently on a panel where the topic was, ‘What do people want from clubs today?’” Hobbs adds. “The answer is, ‘everything.’ But building facilities to give them everything isn’t the challenge—the biggest challenge is operations, and responding to changed expectations. And at the same time, once you’ve finished building, you have to make sure your long-range strategic planning doesn’t end.”