How North Carolina’s Heritage Club has found cost-effective paths to profitable growth.
Wake Forest University is named for where it was founded, in Wake Forest, N.C., 15 miles north of Raleigh. The university moved a couple of hours west in 1956 to its present location in Winston-Salem, creating confusion about what’s in the town of Wake Forest—and what’s not—that still exists today.
In recent years, though, the town has found new ways to make its own name for itself. Wake Forest offers great accessibility to not only Raleigh, but all of the “Research Triangle” region that has had huge growth around the state capital and encompasses Durham, Chapel Hill and several other major universities (North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke). At the same time, the town has retained its own distinctive identity as a quiet and uncomplicated enclave that can seem to be 150 miles, not just 15, from the throb of so much governmental, commercial and academic activity.
Location: Wake Forest, N.C.
That unique combination has led to significant growth of its own for Wake Forest. And as its population has swelled from under 10,000 in 1990 to nearly 40,000 today, the town has frequently appeared on lists of America’s fastest-growing suburbs.
That classification, however, unfairly conjures up images of uncontrolled sprawl and impersonal, cookie-cutter development. To get the real picture of how Wake Forest differs from many of the other charmless and nondescript suburbs on those lists, a visit is needed to one of the town’s—and nation’s—most successful residential communities, and the club that has made important contributions to that success.
The directions page on the website of the Heritage Club includes this instruction to help visitors find their way to the club after arriving in Wake Forest: “Follow the signs to the Veterans Memorial—it is in our parking lot.” Those instructions also speak to how the town, the club and the Heritage residential development are all connected in a unique, ungated way.
There is nothing gaudy about the Memorial, which consists of granite panels, flanked by the U.S. and North Carolina flags, honoring the more than 300 Wake Forest veterans who gave their lives in five major wars. The setting is equally tasteful, with the Memorial positioned at a rounded end of the Heritage Club’s parking lot, in front of its understated clubhouse and overlooking one of the golf course’s serene lakes. The Memorial is illuminated at night, and bricks that include messages from family and supporters make up a Freedom Walk in front of the panels.
The Memorial was dedicated, with more than 700 in attendance, in November 2001—the same year the Heritage Club opened. On the first anniversary of 9-11 in 2002, it showed its value as an important new community focal point, with several hundred Wake Forest residents gathering there for a candlelight ceremony. It is now the annual site of the town’s primary observance of each Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
But John Spiess, who came to the Heritage Club to be its General Manager in 2009, finds that everyday reminders of how the Memorial helps to connect the town to the club in an unusually open fashion can be even more striking.
“You’ll frequently see people drive into the lot and get out of their cars to take pictures or even use paper and a pencil to do a rubbing of the wall or of a brick,” Spiess says. “It’s often clear they’ve come a significant distance, to make a family connection that’s important to them. Then they’ll often just sit and enjoy the surroundings for a while, or maybe come into our clubhouse and our golf shop or restaurant. Whatever they want to do—or not do—is fine with us.”
Peaceful, Easy Feeling
Spiess came to Heritage after serving as General Manager/Director of Golf at Canyon Ridge Club on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., and at TPC Southwind in Memphis. As he takes a visitor through the streets of the Heritage community to see the club’s golf course and pool and tennis facilities, and his golf car mingles easily with people jogging, biking, walking dogs or just enjoying a quiet setting that’s noticeable for its lack of intrusive or speedy auto traffic, Spiess tries to describe the attraction of the property. “It’s an intangible feeling that’s hard to put your thumb on,” he says. “There’s just a quality of life here that’s just very comfortable.”
That feeling was something Heritage’s developer, Andy Ammons, took extra care to try to create from the moment he acquired a former dairy farm in Wake Forest. The first step was to plant over a million pine trees, to form what Ammons, who has also developed Nags Head Golf Links on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, calls a “50-foot golf easement” between residences and the Bob Moore-designed American links-style course that opened in 2001.
“It’s not an ugly briar patch that’s impossible to find your golf ball in,” says Ammons. “It helps everybody enjoy whatever they’re doing more, even if they’re just looking at the scenery.”
As he planned the Heritage community and club, Ammons also made it a point to connect early, often and earnestly with Wake Forest residents and officials. “I gave people on the Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood committees disposable cameras, and asked them to take pictures of the things that were important to them in the area that they wouldn’t want to see changed,” he says. “We also had focus groups where we asked people to describe the kind of dog that best fit their community. Their answer was clear: It wasn’t a bulldog, or a French poodle; it was a Labrador retriever.”
Going With the Flow
With that kind of guidance, Ammons took pains to develop a property that he describes as “spread out to flow and blend in with what already existed here—a little bit everywhere, not one big cluster.” That philosophy is seen in how the facilities of the semi-private Heritage Club are positioned throughout the development—and how they’re used by members and guests.
The club offers a Classic membership, with full privileges to the Heritage Golf Club and the Heritage Swim & Tennis Club; separate memberships to either club, as well as corporate classic and golf memberships, are also available. Reduced initiation fees are offered to Heritage community homeowners. Membership currently numbers around 100 in the Classic category, 300 in Golf and 400 for Swim/Tennis.
Members now account for about 60% of the 40,000 annual rounds played on Heritage’s course—a percentage that has been growing, Spiess says, but is still in line with how the club would like to balance access. “Members can make advance tee times, and on many Saturdays and Sundays now, the course has the feel of a private club,” he says. “But we also want to keep the course available to the public, as one of the prime selling points for the community.”
Similarly, the Swim & Tennis side has grown to see active and dedicated use among members, with the club’s two pools now collectively attracting about 35,000 visits each season, estimates Facilities Director Lee Andrews. The Lake Pool complex features a figure-eight water slide, playground, full-service grill and 10-lane lap pool, and is home to the Heritage Betas Swim Team, a program with nearly 200 kids, 60% of whom are age 10 or younger. The View Pool features a lazy river, water dome, in-water seating area, zero slope entry, resort-like decking and a clubhouse available for private rental functions.
Like the golf course, the club’s pools have also proved to have real appeal when non-members gain access to them through swim meets or other events, or when they just hear about the fun to be had at Heritage’s cardboard boat regattas and other special attractions. Heritage has had especially good success creating community-wide buzz through its dive-in movie program, which it outsources to a firm that specializes in staging such events. The movies, which are held three times per season, are now offered free of charge to members, leading to crowds of as many as 250 for the cinema-while-you-soak extravaganzas. “It’s all about providing value and giving back to members,” says Spiess. “And as the word [about the movies] has spread, I know it’s helped us sell memberships.”
In blog entries he’s posted on C&RB’s website, Spiess has detailed the success of other “niche” activities he and his staff have instituted at the Heritage Club—everything from pumpkin-carving to pickleball. Some of these draw more member interest than others, but that’s not the main objective. Introducing pickleball on the club’s tennis courts, Spiess notes, has proved popular with a small but enthusiastic group of primarily senior members—often a challenging demographic to keep engaged—who now build their weekly schedules around upcoming matches.
Perhaps the part of the Heritage Club where it’s become most evident how the community and membership happily co-exist is the clubhouse’s 1250 Heritage restaurant, which takes its name from the club’s street address.
Executive Chef Jeff Dowdle developed 1250 Heritage’s bistro concept when the 12,000-sq. ft. clubhouse was renovated in 2007. What had been a typical golf club grill was transformed and now features comfort food and lowcountry cuisine specialties that Dowdle first developed in Charleston, S.C. restaurants, and then as an Executive Chef on Kiawah Island. After relocating to Wake Forest to open a popular restaurant, Burkenstock’s, in the town’s historic downtown area,
Dowdle was recruited by Ammons (a frequent Burkenstock’s patron) to help upgrade Heritage’s culinary profile.
Five years later, it’s clear that Ammons wasn’t the only one who liked Dowdle’s cooking. Annual F&B sales at the club are $800,000, almost all a la carte—the clubhouse isn’t big enough to attract significant wedding or banquet business (in their never-ending search for more niches, however, the club’s staff has successfully marketed Heritage as a good place for rehearsal dinners and business-training sessions). More impressively, 60% of the F&B business comes from the public—and membership accounts for the other 40% willingly, because the club does not have food minimums.
“[1250 Heritage] is way more than a ‘19th Hole,’ ” Ammons says proudly—and indeed, with a popular Sunday brunch, $6.95 lunch specials, and an extended season of back-deck dinners with live music, the restaurant has become another round-the-clock-and-calendar reason for Research Triangle-area diners to find their way to Wake Forest. “It’s the best al fresco dining in the Raleigh area,” Spiess feels. “You’re not seated at the edge of a parking lot—everyone gets great views of the golf course, the lake, and a fountain we light up at night.”
The efforts to position Heritage’s club amenities to have real synergy with their surroundings, rather than exclude or overwhelm them, have paid off with impressive new home sales—224 in 2011 alone. The demographics of who’s moved in, to a community where options range from townhomes to million-dollar properties, are also favorable. “It’s really the best of all worlds, with people in their 20s and people in their 80s, and young families, empty-nesters and retirees,” says Spiess.
The club operation is also pulling its own weight by being profitable, Spiess says. That wasn’t always the case, he relates. “2009 was tough for us,” he says. “But 2010 was a turnaround year. We took a hard look at how we could become leaner, and eliminated assistant-level positions in every operating area. That helped us feel the recession less than most.
“[The reductions] did mean that those of us still on the staff [which now includes new Head Golf Course Superintendent Nick Bisanz, formerly Senior Assistant at TPC Scottsdale] have to put in more hours,” Spiess says. “But it’s not like we have to spend them in a 25th-floor office. It’s a pretty comfortable place for us, too”
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