Just 10 years after its founding, the Jonesborough, Tenn. property faced an uncertain future. But after an ownership change, club rebranding, and crisp execution of a strategy to offer a more well-rounded slate of amenities, it has now completed its “little engine that could” journey and climbed to capacity for full-facility memberships.
John Lucchesi, USPTA-Elite, the Director of Tennis at the Blackthorn Club at The Ridges in Jonesborough, Tenn., is sitting in a spot on the property that he’s occupied countless times since being brought to the club to start its tennis program when it was founded in 1997.
Some of what Lucchesi sees from that vantage point still looks very much as it did when he first arrived—the Arthur Hills-designed golf course and the barn on Hole No. 13 that was preserved from the farmland on which it was built; the building at the nearby pool that served as the first clubhouse; and the original four tennis courts that Lucchesi used to start his program.
But as he turns in other directions—and allows his memory to travel as well—all that Lucchesi takes in presents a picture that is vastly changed from from what he first saw, and what he’s since experienced, after becoming the club’s first employee nearly 25 years ago.
Behind Lucchesi are the club’s newest major facility improvements, representing over $1 million in investments for a new 16,800-sq. ft. indoor tennis/fitness/lounge facility, and three new outdoor pickleball courts. Those additions, along with other advancements including a new children’s playground, new event initiatives and an ever-growing culinary program, have combined with the general revival of golf, racquet sports and club life to lead to the formation of the club’s first wait list—and mark the culmination of what General Manager/COO Christopher Haley calls “a little engine that could” story that traces the Blackthorn Club’s determined climb back up from a precipitous slide it experienced in the first decade of its existence.
That story actually began under a different name: The Ridges Golf and Country Club, which was founded as a developer-owned club that followed the late-’90s model of jumping on the Tiger Woods-inspired golf boom, selling homes around an atttractive course and property, and then eventually converting full ownership to the membership.
But like many of those clubs, The Ridges G&CC fell victim to the Great Recession and saw its membership ranks fall to less than 175 dues-paying members just ten years after its founding. Its saving grace, however, was that its developers were not distant, faceless corporations, but local businessmen who had vested interests—including their own homes—in the property, and the club.
The families of two of the original developers repurchased the club from the membership and renamed it Blackthorn Club at The Ridges. With for-profit status, a streamlined, committee-free structure was established, and a strong management team was assembled to set the rebranded club on the path to establishing itself as a full-service, family-centric private club with a wide range of vibrant programs.
As the original and most-tenured member of that team, Lucchesi now directs a robust tennis program that has grown from when he was “begging people to play” to one that now regularly sees full occupancy of the original four courts, as well as the new indoor tennis courts and outdoor pickleball courts.
The introduction of pickleball at the club—first on courts laid out in the indoor facility, and then in the dedicated outdoor complex—quickly brought over 100 converts into a newly formed league. Just as importantly, Haley says, it helped to draw many members who “had never been to that side of the campus,” and in the process discovered other amenities and ways to fully enjoy the property.
While Lucchesi’s seniority among the Blackthorn Club management can’t be topped, there’s plenty of other well-tenured experience now on hand to direct other parts of the operation. Superintendent Russell Lutz has been leading the care of the golf course for 15 years, with his crew routinely maintaining 100 acres of the hilly terrain while also establishing and retaining Audubon certification for the property over the past 12 years.
The course designers “did a really good job with drainage,” Lutz says, and also to ensure that shade problems on the greens have been minimal while still retaining a parkland feel. All of that, along with Northeast Tennessee’s favorable Smoky Mountain climate, has helped to keep the course in optimal condition while avoiding the need for any major renovations. “We have never really needed to even get into overseeding,” Lutz says.
Inside the clubhouse, Blackthorn’s dining program also benefits from the collective leadership experience brought by Events Coordinator Jennifer Villarte, whose 11 years at the club has covered a variety of roles including server, bartender and floor manager, and Executive Chef James Allen, CEC, who came to the club over 10 years ago. Together they have directed continued growth and expansion of creative and enticing food-and-beverage offerings, even with the challenges posed by the pandemic (helping to sustain the momentum was the fact that no staff had to laid off, thanks in part to members’ support of a GoFundMe drive). Themed “staycation” dinner options, both to-go and on-site, have been among the popular features enjoyed by members.
“We’re beating projections every month,” says Allen, who displayed his talents at C+RB’s 2020 Chef to Chef Conference in Charlotte, N.C. with a “Play With Your Food” presentation that included the innovative use of chocolate fountains to provide red-eye and white-pepper gravy and other sauces on buffet action stations. “I’m still getting other chefs calling me about that,” he says.
Blackthorn’s golf operation is now directed by Head Golf Professional Mike Davenport, PGA, who came to the club in 2017 after 15 years with the Reynolds Lake Oconee resort in Georgia. Davenport’s experience handling the volume at that property proved to be invaluable as Blackthorn saw its rounds surge over the past two years, from under 20,000 to now a projected 26,000 for 2022.
“We saw a 3 to 5 percent increase [in 2021] we didn’t anticipate, even though we were expecting strong demand, and we’re planning for more of the same for 2022,” Davenport says. He is also launching new programs, such as a senior member-guest this fall (“two days instead of three, less social, lower-key”), for targeted participant groups that he wants to make sure stay engaged.
With the Blackthorn Club’s full-facility membership now having reached capacity of 400 in June, a waiting list started, and the newest facilities now completed, the focus of Haley, who also came to the club in 2017, can now shift to directing full engagement of a membership that now totals more than 900 across all categories. “[The new facilities] were the pieces that we didn’t have, and pushed us forward to full membership,” he says. “Now we want to make sure we maximize the appeal of all that we have.”
To help reach that objective, Haley can draw on another resource who does have as much experience with the property as even John Lucchesi: Director of Member Engagement Rachel Ingram Busenlehner, a member of one of the two ownership families who actually grew up in The Ridges community, and who also brings insights and ideas gained from playing collegiate golf and working in membership capacities for other private clubs.
With the new-membership influx bringing in over 70 families where everyone is 40 or under, the Blackthorn Club event schedule is now filled with a variety of activities such as “girls night out” socials, “Axes and Ales” couples’ date nights that (safely) combine axe-throwing and beer-tasting, and even “Pickleball and Proseco” (with fried pickles as an hors d’ouevre), to help promote the newest amenity. Off-property excursions are also being arranged to local wineries, repertory theaters and other attractions.
“Only about 20 percent of the membership lives in the development,” says Haley. “We want to create clubs within the club that help people get out and meet others. The things we do don’t necessarily have to be cutting-edge, but they should be leading-edge. And we’ll always keep our ear to the ground, to make sure we’re delivering what members want and expect.”
At a Glance:
Blackthorn Club At The Ridges
Owners: Duke and Maggie Ingram, Rab and Nita Summers
Membership: 920 in all categories. Capped at 400 for golf.
Clubhouse Size: 12,000 sq. ft.
Golf Course Designer: Arthur Hills
Annual Golf Rounds: 26,000
General Manager/COO: Christopher Haley
Director of Member Engagement: Rachel Ingram Busenlehner
Director of Administration: Becky Goodyear
Head Golf Professional: Mike Davenport, PGA
Superintendent: Russell Lutz
Director of Tennis: John Lucchesi, USPTA-Elite
Executive Chef: James Allen, CEC
Events Coordinator: Jennifer Villarta