There is something special happening here on this stretch of hallowed land. On this point, everyone seems to agree.
The Southern Pines Golf Club boasts a Donald Ross-designed course that consistently ranks near the top of best golf courses to play in North Carolina.
But times have changed. Golf interest has declined, and membership in benevolent groups like the Elks isn’t what it used to be.
To balance its books over the years, the Southern Pines Elks Lodge 1692 — the club’s owner since the early 1960s — has sold off bits and pieces of surrounding land for residential projects.
More recently, In 2017 and again in 2018, club leadership entertained serious purchase offers that would have resulted in the clubhouse, course and the approximately 100 acres of what many consider prime undeveloped land near the heart of Southern Pines to shift into corporate hands.
Both deals fell through at the eleventh hour, leaving the future uncertain.
“It is still the most beautiful view in Southern Pines,” said Bill Savoie, exalted ruler of Southern Pines Elks Lodge and Elks Club past president, looking over the rolling greens and fairways on a recent afternoon. “What is a unique feature of this course is the low residential development surrounding a classic Donald Ross design.
“But most of the interest we’ve had from potential buyers has been for the course but also in the open land for development interests. And we’d rather not see that development,” he added.
In the past few months a group comprised of several Elks Club members, neighbors and other folks who’d like to see this property protected for posterity have stepped in to try to fill the void.
The Little Nine Conservancy (LiNC) has initiated an effort to protect 100 acres of woods and open land. The name is derived from the nine-hole defunct course that rambles over 45 of those acres.
Their immediate goal is to raise $25,000 to secure an option to purchase a conservation easement for the land, then use the next few years to raise the balance of approximately $600,000-$700,000 to complete the transaction.
Savoie is hopeful yet pragmatic.
“If the Little Nine is successful in preserving some or all of the open space, then that is a win for the community,” he said. “And it also will give us funds to renovate our property and continue our (Elks) charitable works.”
‘Our Goal is All or None’
First opened in 1906 as the Southern Pines Country Club, the legendary golf architect Donald Ross had designed 36 holes at what is now the Southern Pines Golf Club by the 1930s.
The 45-acre section that’s commonly called the Little Nine hasn’t been used as a golf course in years, but that is not to say it has gone unused.
Many residents in the surrounding community view the property as a de facto park for hikes and evening strolls. Come winter whenever it snows, the steep hill in front of the 5th tee — known as Suicide Hill — is a popular sledding destination. And for the last decade or more, the closed course has hosted junior and senior high school cross country tournaments, and serves as the home proving ground for the Pinecrest High School team.
The remaining 60 acres or so of undeveloped land is mostly wooded and includes a stream and other natural areas.
“The bottom line is we don’t want to see someone put down 300 tract homes on this property,” said LiNC president Gus Sams. “Our goal is to protect it all or none. I didn’t come here to do it halfway.”
Other LiNC board members and officers include Denis McCullough, Scott Boulton, Lizzie Snow, John Buchholz, Beth Garrison, Marian McPhaul, and Marsh Smith. The group’s webmaster is Richard Simmonds.
So far they have collected about $12,000 in cash pledges.
“What we’re trying to do is put the land under a conservation easement. In short form, that means we purchase the right to develop the property by saying you can’t develop it,” he said. “It is a scorched earth approach.”
A native of Atlanta, Sams said he’s watched his hometown deteriorate due to overdevelopment. It’s not just the thought of houses crowding the course, but the influx of cars in and out of the community around the Elks Club that worries him.
“It would look like BINGO was letting out all day long,” said Sams.
Importantly, LiNC’s plan would allow the Elks to continue to operate the golf course on the property or “plant trees all over it if they wanted, but the idea is to leave it as open space.”
Sams said the group has applied for nonprofit status and, once achieved, they anticipate a greater fundraising push so the conservation easement can be purchased.
“We are still in early talks with the Elks,” he said, noting the $600,000-$700,000 goal is slightly above the property’s tax assessed value. “Bear in mind we are not buying the land. The Elks can still own it and turn into a golf course or put timber on it.”
Local attorney and LiNC board member Marsh Smith said the group met with Elks Club leadership in mid-March to discuss their proposal.
“Our goal is the entire thing but, as we told the gathered parties, we certainly would agree to a deal where as we raise money we could obligate certain parts,” Smith said.
And while a conservation easement is a voluntary land agreement that would permanently limit uses of the land, it does not automatically make properties open to the public.
Smith hopes the Elks would view the protected ground like their other family-friendly amenities — such as the pool — as a supplemental plus to encourage new members to join.
“As an Elk, I would try to convince the organization to put in a trail that goes down to the spring. You’ve got lots of runners in the community and fathers who will want to take their kids fishing,” he said. “This could be a great feature for the club.”
“A lot of us grew up there and value this land because of how it shaped us,” Smith added.
Elks Club Takes Long View
Not unlike the community that surrounds it, the Southern Pines Elks Lodge 1692 has evolved with time. In its earliest iteration it was a social club where members could drink alcohol when the town itself was dry.
“Many people have this mistaken identity that Elks is just a bunch of old guys sitting around in smoke-filled rooms,” said Savoie. “That is simply not the case.”
The local chapter has welcomed female members for years — including at the highest level of club leadership — and its indoor smoking is now history.
“We are a family-oriented business and we perform a great number of charitable functions,” Savoie added. “Every year we give between $50,000-$60,000 back into the community, not including our time.”
And the Elks are actively looking for new members.
The current roster is around 360 Elks members and, of those, about 110 are golf club members.
“When people come in, we want to give them a reason for joining. We educate them on all the good things we do as a lodge and we hope that maybe you will want to do those things too,” Savoie said.
But the last few years have been bumpy, with starts and stops on potential deals and a recent legal settlement with a former management company.
Avestra, LLC, had signed a 30-year lease with the Southern Pines Golf Club that was renewable in 5-year increments.
The Elks took back control of the golf course in August 2017, about 10 years into that arrangement. Savoie explained the Elks had been involved with collection proceedings against Avestra for several years prior to that decision.
“They weren’t honoring their contract,” he said.
Under the terms of the lease agreement, if there was a default then the Elks did not have recourse on any capital improvements the company had made on the course.
Avestra alleged they’d made substantial improvements, “and we opposed those purported improvements,” Savoie said.
A lawsuit and a countersuit were both launched. Insurance covered a lot of the Elks’ costs, but Savoie estimated the lodge still paid close to six-figures in legal fees.
He refused to disclose the terms of the settlement, but was clearly disappointed in the outcome.
“We felt we had a strong case,” he said simply.
Looking to the future, he said the club has regularly seen interest from potential developers about four times a year.
“You listen to their pitch. You evaluate if they have the means. We also look at whether they have ever owned a course before and do they understand the nature of the business, and how would the Elks fit into their vision,” he said.
As for his own personal take on the LiNC proposal, Savoie said he would like to see the contiguous property protected. That is the land that directly touches the active golf course.
“I feel that makes the most sense,” he said. “The Golf Club is a business and we have a fiduciary responsibility to the lodge to balance the budget so the lodge can continue to thrive and grow.”