While many builders have pulled back from building golf communities and managing the country club components, Toll Brothers has bucked the trend and has actually stepped up its activity in the segment. The Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based builder now owns and operates 11 golf communities in seven states.
“We are operating more golf communities now than ever before,” says Louise Valdov, marketing manager for the Virginia division. “We are constantly expanding the product lines offered at these communities, so in that sense, our golf presence is also constantly expanding.”
At the core of the company's golf community philosophy is a total country club lifestyle with a wide range of product and the amenities to command a premium price point. That position is aptly—and successfully—demonstrated at Belmont Country Club in Ashburn, Va.
Built in 1799 by Ludwell Lee, the son of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the generations, guests who visited the manor house included John Quincy Adams, Warren G. Harding, and Will Rogers.
The house had been vacant for 20 years, though, by the time Toll Brothers purchased it and its surrounding 1,100 acres in the late 1990s. “It was quite run down,” says Cory DeSpain, senior vice president of Toll's Washington, D.C., division. “There were dead birds, snakes, and broken windows.”
But with a prime location in booming Loudoun County—an hour's drive from the nation's capital and convenient to Washington-Dulles International Airport—the opportunity to create and market a distinctive community with a rare historic centerpiece has made the long and complicated road to development worth the effort.
Old World Charm Outstanding for both its history and its distinctive Federal-style architecture, the house's restoration drew the attention of local, state, and federal historical societies. Attempts by Toll Brothers to mirror the architectural style in the adjoining 36,000-square-foot clubhouse were firmly rejected. To maintain the integrity of the restoration, it had to be clear where the original house ended and the current construction began.
But all the difficulties of returning the house to its original grandeur have reaped immeasurable rewards. It serves as a focal point for the entire community, both within its gates and for passers-by on the surrounding roadways.
It also serves as the icon that DeSpain says is almost essential in today's competitive real estate market. Looking out on Belmont Country Club's 18-hole, Arnold Palmer Signature course, it gives the community something that no other development in the area can offer. Toll Brothers could demand a higher price on its houses because of the combination of the manor house, the country club, and the gated community. Several phases are already sold out and resale values in the community have been very strong, he says.
“You need a focal point—a golf course, a lake, the shore, etc.,” DeSpain says. “The manor house icon helps a great deal.”
There's also an implied value in keeping all the lots and handling the construction in-house. Having a single builder in the community helps maintain a consistently high level of quality, DeSpain says, and provides continuity in the development.
At build-out, the gated community will feature approximately 1,900 units priced from the $300,000s to the $700,000s. The product mix includes single-family estate homes, townhouses, and multifamily homes, providing enough diversity to attract everyone from families with young children to empty nesters looking to downsize.
To create the sense of community that buyers today place a high value on, Belmont is divided into small villages named for well-known golf courses around the world. To accommodate such a wide range of buyers, Belmont Country Club offers its residents a variety of memberships—including golf, fitness, social, and tennis—to fit their lifestyles.
Toll says it anticipates that 30 percent of the home buyers will purchase country club memberships. With new phases yet to be released, Toll has restricted the number of memberships now available to ensure that home buyers in the final phases will have an opportunity to buy in.
Creating A Club Lifestyle Toll's Virginia management team recognized early on that if Belmont were to fully succeed, it had to foster a state of mind as much as offer a distinctive place to live and play.
“The village idea tapped into the idea of nostalgia and the desire for neighborhoods,” says Jim Smith, vice president of Belmont. “A sense of pride helps grow neighborhoods. Community doesn't happen on its own. The thing that makes Belmont different is that it's a community with a golf course, not a golf course community.”
That doesn't happen without a lot of personal attention. Recognizing that their talents and expertise lie in home building, not club management, Toll's Virginia division hired Terry Bascher as the country club's general manager—reflecting Toll's moves in recent years to expand the services side of its business. A 26-year veteran of the club industry, Bascher's experience includes working as club manager and vice president of client services for Club Mark Corp., a private club consulting group; and as regional membership director for Club-Corp USA, which owns and operates nearly 200 golf courses, country clubs, private business clubs, and golf resorts. She knows exactly what mix of ongoing activities and special events, as well as the kinds of club membership options, will help foster a sense of community and keep the club running profitably.
The clubhouse has banquet facilities, a casual restaurant, a rooftop patio for outdoor events, billiards, conference rooms, a business center, a spa, and concierge service. A full-service recreation center includes a 25-meter competition pool, a zero-depth children's activity pool, a diving well, a toddler pool, tennis, volleyball, and basketball courts, and indoor aerobic and fitness facilities. Eventually, a town center is planned for the community, offering convenient shopping.
While many builders may be shying away from golf courses in favor of less expensive lakes, Smith says they've found it easier to get zoning for a golf course than a lake—and a golf course will pay for itself over time.
But he admits that running a golf course and a clubhouse is an entirely different type of operation from a home building company, and isn't sure if it's a model that Toll Brothers will replicate on a regular basis in the future.
“You have to understand details that go way past home building,” he says, “like pro shops, menus, and banquet facilities. You can break the bank doing it wrong.”
If there was something they wished they had done differently in developing the community, DeSpain and Smith say they would have held off on building the clubhouse. They say it opened 12 to 18 months sooner than it should have had to in order to get sufficient membership to sustain it. That has “turned the corner,” DeSpain says, and the clubhouse has helped with sales.
“People buy what they see,” he says.
The work associated with running a golf operation has made DeSpain do what many golf community builders are doing these days. He's taking a hard look at the numbers before he invests too heavily in building and operating other golf communities. “I don't know how much we'll do of it in the future,” he says. “Working out systems for golf is a totally different business. It's easier to build communities.” But in Loudoun County, Belmont has all the makings of a winning community.