(Editor's Note: This is the second of three parts in a series on Horse Creek Golf Course in Dora.)
DORA - The success of Horse Creek Golf Course over a a generation took time to build up - to the point it would take millions of dollars to duplicate the current facility.
Today, city officials estimate that with everything now in place, the cost would be closer to at least $6 million or $7 million to do today. Officials are not sure it could even be built at that cost.
The course, featuring 419 Bermuda grass on the fairway and Tift Dwarf grass on the greens, was built on 220 purchased acres, on an old abandoned surface mine, opening in 2000 under former Mayor George Sides (whose son, George Sides, Jr., is now on the city council). "George was a good businessman. He saw this as a revenue generator," current Mayor Randy Stephens said.
The course's website notes the land was owned originally by Drummond Company. "They sold it to local landowner Gene Taylor, who agreed to sell the land to the city as long as they built a golf course on it," the website states.
Robert Kirk, a course architect based in Birmingham, designed the layout and oversaw construction with then-General Manager Jack Bergsieker. (Kirk still visits occasionally to play.) Stephens said the city in time borrowed approximately $2.5 million to construct the course, and ground was broken in 1998. The city provided an extensive amount of in-kind work through the use of city employees and equipment. It was financed through mutual bonds and paid off completely in October 2015.
Stephens, who took office in 2012, said the city still owed at least $600,000 borrowed when he took office, and that was eventually paid off in his first term, a number of years ahead of schedule.
One drawback, however, was the lack of a clubhouse, as the facility was operating out of two modular trailers nearly a generation after the course opened.
Stephens was eager to build a clubhouse. He visited other courses, particularly getting ideas from Limestone Springs, a private club in Blount County.
The base cost for the clubhouse would come in at $1.366 million to build. "We put another $300,000 in it of our own money" for furnishings and other needs, bringing the cost to $1.7 million, he said.
Helping in the plans was Don Cummings, who became general manager in 2013, after Bergsieker decided to retire earlier in the year. Stephens - an annual pass holder who had talked out loud with friends for years about what could be done at the course - had become mayor the prior November and started working on changes.
"There was no day play. All the play was in the afternoons and the weekends," even though it cost as much to maintain whether the course had players on it or not, Stephens said. "They never had a senior plan or a benefit for the retired golfer to play." Soon people 60 and over had a discounted morning plan for them that Cummings had used earlier, which Stephens said was successful.
"The day I came, 109 people joined on the senior" plan, Cummings said, noting it left time in the afternoon when the younger golfers would want to play. The seniors would come several times a week and bring guests, also spending for $15 cart fees. "That was a key to getting the daily play up," he said. "They always had great weekend play."
The council ending their term in 2016 approved the clubhouse just before leaving office. Almost from the first job interview, Stephens told Cummings he wanted him to help with that project. Officials drew up plans for a 5,400-square-foot club house, with a popular 1,500-square-foot event room (six hours for $300, and $50 an hour afterward). It has a conference room (free is you are playing golf and $50 otherwise), a pro shop, a grill serving sandwiches, and a locker and shower area in the bathrooms.
"The day we had the grand opening, people were in awe," Stephens said. "They were not expecting something this nice."
On a lower garage level, the course's golf carts are stored.
Not far from the clubhouse, the facility also has a driving range, which has netting to protect it from the nearby Horse Creek Nature Trail, which in turn connects with the city park, Dora Lake and Sumiton's nature trail. The trail ties in well with the course, which Stephens points out has its own diverse nature features, including the golf paths with natural settings of woods, lakes, brooks and even sightings of deer.
The city financed the clubhouse for 20 years with municipal bonds at 2.60 percent interest. Payments already have the balance down to $980,000.
"It was my goal, and it is still my goal, to have this paid for before I leave office, meaning in this term," Stephens said. "I was hoping to pay a half-million dollars on it this fall," as this September is the first opportunity to pay extra principle under the rules for the bond issue. He then planned to pay it off in two more years. However, he was not anticipating the pandemic and the golf carts, plus equipment placement is expensive.
"You can't go to Lowe's and buy a lawnmower to mow 220 acres," he said.
The club house did not take long to construct, opening on June 10, 2017. Today, Stephens credits it with increasing admissions by 10 to 15 percent, adding some had told him earlier they would not come unless there was a clubhouse to relax at afterward.
"Golf has always been, to me, more than the competition," he said. "Golf is a social event to me." His friends usually laugh together on the course, not caring who won but just enjoying the company.