Benard Williams walked into the Meadowbrook Golf Course’s club house and plopped down on a seat at a nearby table.
He looked disappointed.
Williams, 62, has been a volunteer at Meadowbrook for many years now, helping to maintain the greens, just as his father did when the 121-acre golf course opened to African-Americans in 1958.
It was the first African-American owned country club in the Triangle and has stayed that way, even though it changed hands once in 2007.
But that all changed Tuesday night, when the Town of Garner agreed to purchase the land from Saint Augustine’s – the owner’s since 2007 – for $2.9 million.
“It is what it is,” Williams said, shrugging his shoulders. “This is a part of me. It’s like losing a family member. All these years I’ve been coming out here, I’ve seen people come and go, met a lot of nice people, made a lot of good friendships.”
The town has plans to turn the golf course into a park or future sports venue. But those plans could be years from now. In the meantime they’ll lease the property back to St. Augustine’s for $1 a year until they are ready to develop the property.
“Hopefully they’ll hold it off for another ten years,” Williams said.
The short-term lease will be until June 30, 2017, renewable at the discretion of the town in one-year periods. According to the contract, St. Augustine’s will operate and maintain the course as it does today.
Robert Hinton, who maintains the golf course as a staff member for St. Augustine’s, said the members of the country club are disappointed with the prospect that the country club could close in a year, if the town decides to do so. But he said they understand.
“My biggest thing is, if it’s going to be something that’s going to help kids, I’m all for it,” said Robert Hinton, who maintains the golf course. “I hate that the school had to be in that position where they had to get rid of it, but that’s something I can’t control.”
The Town of Garner had been entertaining the idea of buying the golf course since February, when St. Augustine’s approached them.
Council members first visited the property in May, then again in June, Town Manager Rodney Dickerson said.
The vote to buy the property was unanimous. Town leaders say they hope they can develop the property for future generations, while still maintaining its heritage.
In order to pay for the property, Dickerson said the town will use money out of its fund balance. The Town will replenish the fund balance through loans and will pay the loans back over the course of 10 to 15 years.
The county values the golf course at a little more than $2.4 million for tax purposes. Town Attorney Bill Anderson would not say last week how much St. Augustine’s was asking for it, but he said it was “much more than the town considered.”
St. Augustine’s University officials have not spoken publicly about the sale of the course, which would provide an infusion of cash for a school that has had financial problems amid declining enrollment in recent years.
“It is a win-win for all parties involved,” council member Ken Marshburn said. “It has served this community and others well, and certainly has a rich history. I believe if we purchase this property we can honor the history of this place.”
Mayor Pro-tem Kathy Behringer agreed.
“It’s always a good day when both parties are happy with the outcome,” Behringer said.
First in the Triangle
But current members and Williams, the volunteer, tell a different story.
On a recent hot sunny day, the air was sweltering as temperatures reached 95 degrees. Despite the heat, Larry Curry, 73, a current member of the country club, played a round of golf on the nine-hole course with a friend.
Curry said he was disppointed by the news that the course was sold, but happy that Garner will lease the course to St. Augustine’s.
“I play here three or four times a week,” Curry said. “I come here and sit down in the club house with the guys and talk. It’s like home sweet home.”
“It’s important to us, no question about it.”
Curry said he played at the course when it was first built. His father-in-law, also a former member, helped build the course, he said.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “It was a real top scale place. It’s a shame we are going to lose it.”
When Meadowbrook was founded in 1958 it was thought to be the first African-American-owned country club in the Triangle. Some claim it was the first in the country.
At the time, African-Americans were not allowed to play on quality golf courses that were white-owned, or they had to play when the courses were closed. So a group of African-American men wanting to play decided to create their own course and bought the 121 acres south of Garner.
During the country club’s early years, the only African-American people allowed to play at the club were teachers, lawyers and doctors – or those who made the most money. Eventually it opened up to African-Americans of all socio-economic statuses and thrived. It became a place where men would golf, families would cook out and kids swam and played putt-putt.
But over the years, since integration when African-Americans were slowly allowed to join country clubs owned by whites, membership at Meadowbrook dropped. It became tough to pay the bills.
Cutbacks were made, and a smaller staff kept up the course. The greens turned to greenish-brown rough, and the bunkers became filled with weeds and grass.
The owners of the course, who were the children of the founders, sold the golf course to St. Augustine’s – a historically black university – in 2007 hoping to keep it in African-American-owned hands.
Members and volunteers say the club initially was revitalized after the sale, then suffered during the recession. Staff was reduced again, and some of the same problems faced in 2007 seemed to arise again.
Today, there are currently 20 members of the country club. The course is open to anyone who wants to golf.
Williams, the volunteer, said he will miss Meadowbrook whenever the town decides to develop it.
“Right now we don’t have no where else to go,” Williams said. “There was no other place we could go and sit around and do what we do, and fellowship. I’m disappointed and understanding about it. I guess this is the way progress is, but I don’t know.”