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Business acumen, civic pride save community golf course
sapelo golf 1

Twice in trouble, twice reborn. Those simple words well describe the story of Sapelo Hammock Golf Club in Shellman Bluff. First time visitors are always taken with the beauty of the golf course because of the natural surroundings in which it’s located. Shellman Bluff is the departure point for those wanting to venture into the nearby realm of unspoiled rivers and creeks, miles upon miles of untouched salt marsh, and barrier islands where one can walk on a beach for hours with no trace of another human footprint. 

The story of Shellman Bluff’s golf course began in the late 1990’s when the remarkably scenic facility was first envisioned and constructed. In 2002, it was purchased by a group of local developers and tied into two adjoining coastal residential communities: Cooper’s Point and Sutherland Bluff Plantation. The club did well for several years until the recession of 2008 took its toll and it was subsequently forced to close in July 2010. The impact for the nearby residents was severe and immediately became evident as weeds began to reclaim the formerly pristine 171 acres of property that winds through majestic moss-laden live oak trees, saw palmettos, tidal marshes, beautiful homes and a signature island green. Then came the first rejuvenation: a small group of determined locals refused to accept what had happened and thus formed Shellman Bluff Acquisition, LLC in late 2010 to raise capital to purchase the property from the prior owners. The common stock offering, in conjunction with a friendly local lending institution, accomplished its goal and work to restore the landscape began immediately. After months of intense cleanup, fertilization, irrigation, and repair by the 110-strong group of investors and volunteers, the course reopened in July 2011. 

Since its formation, Shellman Bluff Acquisition had been able to continue in operation through the original offering and ongoing additional contributions from its owners and volunteers, even though it was never fully capitalized. Despite that kind of community support, it was difficult to avoid yearly losses caused mainly from the debt incurred in the original acquisition and the necessary investment to restore the course. In December 2017, the outlook appeared dim for the golf course. The club was closing out its sixth year of financial losses, with operating expenses again exceeding revenue. Considering the general trend of golf courses around the nation and the number of closures (205 nationally in 2017 alone), the outlook didn’t look positive by any measure and closing the doors became a looming possibility. And then came the proposal that would start them on an entirely new pathway: a rebirth by means of a new capital infusion program involving the sale of preferred stock. The preferred stock offering was the incentive that was needed to entice common stock holders and new investors. The preferred status assured the new investors full ownership with no outstanding debt and assured them of having collateral – the golf course itself and its buildings and facilities. That was the only viable option available as it was evident that the course would have to shut down within a matter of weeks if no major changes were made to the business model. It was either restructure or go into bankruptcy and foreclosure, a painful notion that absolutely no one could accept and would have been so detrimental to the local area. 

Within a matter of three months, preferred stock sales totaling $1,250,000 were confirmed, thus allowing the club to pay off 100 percent of the debt (around $800,000) and providing a cushion for operating expenses for the next several years. And the vast majority of the support came from within an area of northern McIntosh County mainly populated by area natives, weekend fishing and golfing families, and retirees in gated communities. 

However, this stroke of genius alone could not assure success for the long term since revenue shortfalls were still predicted for the coming years. The club simply had to generate more rounds played, increase revenues and market itself to the outside world, a world that needed to go well beyond McIntosh County and surrounding rural Georgia counties, including Liberty. 

Part 2 of this story will run in the next issue of the Coastal Courier.

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