Golf course communities hit the accelerator button in the 1990s as North Carolina became a focal point for the booming retirement and second-home market.
Couples flocked to these communities, lured by over-the-top promises of lavish amenities and lifestyles. When the economic crash came in 2008, however, many of these developer promises had to be scaled back or broken altogether.
Not so at St. James Plantation, the 6,000-acre golf and marina community near Southport in Brunswick County. For 22 years, St. James has been doing things the Wright Way, delivering on every promise by town founder Homer Wright.
Today it’s the most successful community on the coast of the Carolinas, home to 81 holes of golf, a private beach club on Oak Island, a 156-slip marina, four clubhouses and some 3,500 residents.
Wright began his vision with a grand entrance, a simple white chapel and a long, winding road to the Intracoastal Waterway.
“I wanted a statement made at the entrance and then early intent with the chapel. We had nobody to go (to the chapel) so we had to get a permit to make it a storage building,” Wright laughs, looking back to the early days of the development. “But the chapel gave some indication of the people we were trying to attract. From the very beginning we had residents that saw life with a value of more than just living.”
Wright, who recently turned 89 and remains active in the sprawling golf community, doesn’t believe in contracts, preferring to stick out his hand for a firm shake, which means more to him than some ink on a piece of legal paper.
“You do all you can do to try to accomplishment something, but if you’re going to cheat somebody then what fun is it in winning,” Wright says. “It’s like playing a golf game and you are cheating on your score. If you win there is no feeling of accomplishment. When I see somebody doing it I try to play the very best that I can. That worked in golf and that’s sort of the way I think at St. James Plantation.”
Wright certainly has done “his very best” at St. James Plantation, which heads into 2014 as the No. 1 selling coastal golf community in the Carolinas 22 years running. Now that’s some winning streak considering the competition.
It is the only private community in North Carolina with 81 holes of golf, designed by four different architects, and has four clubhouses, a beach club, a thriving marina, tennis courts, walking trails … you name it.
Varying courses by the likes of Nicklaus Design, Hall of Famer Hale Irwin, Tim Cate and P.B. Dye log a combined 170,000 rounds a year, signaling an ultra active base of residents who enjoy a relaxing day on the links.
“It’s a big plus. You get a different look all the time,” said St. James director of golf operations Dave Kjome. “We have a couple of members who play over 200 times a year. Just having four different layouts right in their own backyard; it doesn’t get much better than that.”
The Dye course, called the Founders Club, is located along the Intracoastal Waterway and is regarded as the most difficult, but most holes in this golfing paradise would be described as “good member” challenges, offering plenty of variety with some forced carries over wetlands, but options to play the safe route … and score.
“The goal was to go out there and try to identify what their market was, to build a golf course to that market and have people come in and say, ‘Hey, I enjoyed that, I want to live here,”’ said Irwin, who designed The Members Club. “We accurately identified what that market was going to be and we had an owner who was cooperative. You never know because the proof in the pudding is really 5-10 years down out, but as time goes on and the success of the operation there indicates that people enjoy it. In that sense I’m real happy and proud for them.”
With 550 pin placements to cut each week and a $4 million annual budget, St. James director of agronomy Conrad Broussard stays busy. And with putts rolling on four different strains of grasses (two bentgrass and two bermudagrass), Broussard has to be extra attentive to North Carolina’s seasons, temperature changes and golfers’ foot traffic.
“I have a superintendent in charge on each course and a few assistants, but the challenging part might be keeping the members abreast of what’s going on just because they are so different practices that the greens can’t be the same,” he said.
“I’m sure the maintenance staff would rather see five golfers a day out here so the courses are in perfect shape, but the challenge of doing 170,000 rounds of golf and keeping the courses in the condition that the members expect – I still don’t know how Conrad does it,” Kjome said. “He has a magic wand.”
Kjome, who migrated to St. James 16 years ago after a stint at nearby Bald Head Island, has witnessed the development of the community – which actually incorporated 15 years ago to officially place “St James” on the North Carolina map – up close. There are now approximately 1,700 golf members. That’s quite a stout list of names to memorize.
“It is funny when you get somebody new you tell them up front and try to explain all the wheels that make this operation run,” Kjome said. “I see ALL the different members because they don’t really have one home course they play. Being here for 16 years I know quite a few of them, but we also have a little cheat system.”
Kjome keeps pace with the active golfing base with an elaborate email and lottery system that spits out tee times and playing partners to members by the minute.
“When I first came here to open up the Players Club we had paper tee sheets and we had people making tee times a year in advance. It was crazy,” Kjome said. “It’s quite a bit different now.”
Well, Kjome is quick to credit Troon Golf, the golf management firm at St. James, for helping facilitate the club’s tremendous amount of activity. Tee times have gone from 8-minute intervals to 10-minute intervals, producing more “relaxing” rounds of golf without sacrificing availability.
Wright himself used to be quite a good player, and at 186 pounds, looks fit enough to stripe a 3-wood down the fairway even at the ripe age of 89. But he laughs when asked about his golf game since undertaking the St. James project in the early 1990s.
“I like to play golf, but coming to St. James ruined my golf game,” he said. “I used to play golf and watch the golf ball but when I came to St. James I would play golf and see what needed to be done so I was totally distracted from my golf game. After I played a few times I thought I ought to be out there walking that golf course rather than playing it and making a difference.”
Few golf developers in the business have the passion and fulfilled promises of Wright, who lives in Eden in the Triad area but regularly makes trips to the beach to check on his baby, along with his four children who are active alongside their father in the business.
“I want everyone to have fun; you deserve some fun in this life,” Wright said. “I believe the truth is the (residents) are enjoying this. That’s a substantial part of the thrill and reward I get from doing this. That’s a big part of my fun.”
Now with approximately 4,500 owners and still growing at a steady pace, stories like those of David Tucker, an artist who used to live in North Raleigh, are commonplace. Tucker used to frequent the area as a kid on summer vacations and was invited to visit St. James in 1999 as a potential buyer.
“It impressed us to the point that we thought this would be a great place to possibly retire,” Tucker said. “It was a recreational ‘Mecca’, golf courses, a planned marina, proximity to the beach and small town quaintness. What more could one ask for? We also felt like the developer had the financial base to be able to follow through with all that we had seen on the drawing board. We invested in a small lot to build on in the future and long story short almost 15 years later here we are.
“During these trying times, St James, unlike some other area communities, still steers a sound course for stability and strong long term planning. We are very pleased to call St. James our home.”
Although St. James Plantation is a private gated community, the club does offer outside play via various stay-and-play packages. Log on to stjamesplnatation.com for additional information.