Milledgeville Country Club: Thriving Under New Owners as Rebranded Club at Lake Sinclair
By Scott Kauffman
There are various reasons why people want to own golf courses. Some high-net worth individuals simply do it for the prestige. Other people invest in courses because the unique nature of these leisure real estate assets represent sound business strategies for both short- and long-term situations.
For Joni and Ted Smith, who purchased struggling Milledgeville County Club three years ago in central Georgia, it was personal. Not because they have a certain affinity to the game or business. It was personal because the Smiths are from the area and they happened to be members of the club going back to the 1980s.
Interestingly, Ted Smith, 63, doesn’t even play golf. According to Ted’s wife, Joni Smith, her husband’s passion is deep-sea fishing. Yet, it was still a major investment that just had to be made because they couldn’t let this historic property go out of business in their proud, modest town that once served as the capital of Georgia from, 1804-1868.
To be sure, the Smiths have always been longtime benefactors to the local Milledgeville-Baldwin County community, having closed on philanthropic land deals over the years to help local churches and schools. Now it was time to save another local institution that opened in 1957 and once had 600 members in its heyday.
“It was just being good business stewards here in Milledgeville and helping our community grow,” Joni Smith, 59, explains. “When we saw the club just taking such a nosedive. … To attract businesses, we feel like this is one of the integral parts of having a successful community. To have a private club, a restaurant and golf course.
“So, we bought it, knowing we weren’t going to make our monetary investment back. But the investment we were making in the community, that’s what we did it for. We just wanted the club to be able to support itself and pay its own bills.”
The Smiths by no means are making a small fortune in their latest venture, but the club operated in the black in its first year of operations after closing for a year and being completely transformed and rebranded as The Club at Lake Sinclair under the guidance of longtime club operator Mike Kelly. Not a bad start for the Smiths, considering Kelly advised them to expect a couple years of likely operating at a loss after renovating the clubhouse with newly expanded dining and banquet venues and building a resort-style pool complex with separate family-friendly and adult sections.
“God’s blessed us, and really the community has blessed us with their support,” says Joni Smith, who has nearly doubled the club’s membership to approximately 360 members after investing upwards of $5 million in other re-imagined recreational and hospitality-related amenities designed by Atlanta-based Kuo Diedrich Chi Architects.
Kelly, who handed over the club reins to general manager Jeffery Allbright in June 2018 after the club exceeded its membership goals of 350 by 2021, credits the club’s turnaround not only to the Smith’s capital commitment, but to their vision to reposition the club into a multi-functional, family-friendly setting that matches the formula at numerous other successfully recapitalized private clubs throughout America.
It also helped that the Smiths delivered a “world-class private club experience at Milledgeville prices.” For instance, the Club at Lake Sinclair’s initiation fee for a full-golf membership is just $900, $550 for a social membership – just a fraction of the cost for a similar private club membership at nearby Reynolds Plantation.
Another significant factor in the club’s early success was the unique decision to outsource the club’s entire food and beverage operations to local restaurateur Jason Medders and highlight – for the first time – the natural beauty and recreational potential of Lake Sinclair. Medders, who operated the highly popular Aubri Lane’s restaurant for 10-plus years in a more intimate downtown Milledgeville location, also is exceeding his wildest expectations under the same signature brand named after his daughter and son, respectively.
In the first two years of operations at the club, Medders, who also controls all catered club events to members and non-members, is close to almost doubling his business after evolving from a fine-dining experience to one that is now described as “casual elegance” where patrons can come several times a week and not feel like they’re “breaking the bank,” as Joni Smith describes it.
“We always wanted to grow our business and we felt like we had maximized our location downtown because it was such a small footprint,” says Medders, who moved back to Milledgeville with his family in 2008 after working in Atlanta. “When Ted and Joni purchased the club and approached us with the idea about moving, this was the larger footprint we’d been looking for and a good opportunity to expand our business. We also loved it being on the lake.”
Medders, a self-described people person, also enjoys the “larger more diverse group of people” he now gets to serve, not to mention a much larger food and beverage footprint that encompasses a 140-seat signature restaurant, main bar with four large-screen televisions, members-only lounge, private dining room called The Wine Room, outdoor covered porch and a ballroom with capacity for 250 guests.
All of the unique hospitality spaces come with sweeping scenic views of Lake Sinclair and the 18-hole course, and future plans are in the works for a “tiki-style, cabana pool bar/kitchen situation” at the pool, which Medders says should further enhance the member experience “in a positive way.”
“When I first came up with the concept of Aubri Lane’s, something to offer people the type of food and atmosphere Atlanta restaurants provide, it was a restaurant I always wanted to be on the lake,” Medders adds. “So being able to be out here on the water and maximize business out here in the summertime was something we were always looking for.”
Apparently, it also was something nearly 400 other Milledgeville-Baldwin County resident members were looking for in a place they now call their new private club.
(Editors Note: This story by Scott Kauffman originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Golf Business magazine).