Members vote to close Decatur Country Club

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Dec. 16—The 99-year-old Decatur Country Club will come to an end after members voted Wednesday night at an emergency meeting to close it.

Luke Howell, Decatur Country Club board chairman, said the last day of operation will be Dec. 31. The final dinner service will be Dec. 23, he said.

"It is not a path desired to be taken," he said Thursday. "It was the direction that had to be taken. ... We're all sad it is closing."

Board members declined to detail the reasons for the private club's closure.

A club member most of his life, Tom Counts of Decatur said overhead expenses were an issue.

"(The club) just needed more members, pure and simple," the former board member said. "It's a shame for the city, for everybody that it is closing. It's been through a lot, the Great Depression, a couple of World Wars, a pandemic. It needed more members. There's a lot of overhead to keep a large club going."

Counts said he voted to keep the club open.

"I would have liked to see it continue," he said. "Decatur Country Club was very inviting. I know people equate country clubs with exclusion, being stuffy. That is the old mindset. It was a very welcoming place. I grew up there. I learned to swim there. I had my (wedding) rehearsal dinner there. It's a loss for Decatur."

Longtime member and former Decatur Mayor Lynn Fowler called the vote to close "disappointing."

He said the Decatur Country Club was a common destination for city officials attempting to lure new industries to town.

"We brought industrial leaders out here when they were thinking of locating here," said Fowler, who served as the Morgan County Economic Development Association board chairman for three decades. "We'd show them Decatur and bring them by the club for lunch. In the 1960s, '70s, '80s, '90s, the 2000s, everybody knew this was the place to be."

Fowler, a Decatur Country Club member for over 55 years, said the existence of a thriving Burningtree Country Club a few miles away should keep Decatur Country Club's closure from hurting the city's ability to attract young professionals and new industries.

"If we didn't have Burningtree, yes, it would hurt business. At least some of the taint is off by us having Burningtree," he said. "We'll make it OK. I don't think it will really hurt."

Morgan County Economic Development Association CEO and President Jeremy Nails agrees.

The closure is "unfortunate," Nails said. "But country clubs across the nation have experienced a decline in membership."

Nails said the closure of the club on Country Club Road Southeast potentially opens up valuable land.

"The Decatur Country Club property has tremendous opportunity as it is one of the largest undeveloped properties in the city, with a great central location," he said. "... The grounds could be attractive for a properly designed mixed-use development incorporating housing and other amenities that could attract growth.

"It's too soon to know what the outcome will be for the property, but there is a lot of potential and optimism for that location as the city continues to grow and attract new residents."

After the Decatur Country Club closed its golf course in April 2017 because of course maintenance costs and a lower number of golfing members, Cook Properties, Cook's Pest Control's real estate holdings company, purchased the 90-acre property for $3.7 million from Club Properties LLC.

Brian Cook, Cook's Pest Control president and chief executive officer, said the country club stayed on as a tenant in the club's building, a lease that includes the swimming pool and tennis courts.

At the time of the purchase, Cook's planned to build a corporate office on the country club property as a way to consolidate its operations. It is too early to say how the property will be used, Cook said Thursday afternoon.

He called the closure "a sad situation."

"Right now, we have no plans," said Cook, a member of Decatur Country Club. "We gave the club the opportunity to make a go at it. We would like to see something beneficial for the community. ... It's just too early to say what we might do with it."

Fowler said his lasting memory of the club will be its family atmosphere.

"With our four children, we would go out there on the weekend, the kids would go swimming then play golf," he said. He joined the club in 1965. "It allowed us to do something as a family. It kept us together. I remember that the most. We all enjoyed the socialization and dinners there."

Fowler added that the city's enhancement of its parks has reduced the importance of country clubs.

"Country clubs are not the thing they used to be. Golf courses aren't either. It takes a lot of money to play. It takes a lot of money to maintain them," he said. "I will miss the opportunity to go out there."

The Decatur Kiwanis Club has met weekly at the club for more than 20 years, Kiwanis Club President Keith Jackson said. "When I heard it was closing, I was deeply disappointed. The Decatur Country Club was more than a meeting place. It's a part of Decatur, a part we will sorely miss. Its staff has been incredible."

Fellow Kiwanian Bobby Joe Smith said he'll miss the Decatur Country Club's staff and the bread pudding that is served for dessert. "The service people became part of our family," he said.

Jackson said Kiwanis will move its weekly meetings to DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Wilson Street.

Burningtree Country Club owner Andy Villarreal said he hated to see the Decatur Country Club close.

"My family were members out there from 1985 to 2017 when the golf course closed," he said. "It's hard, almost impossible for a club to sustain as a social club only. There just isn't the money to be made on food sales. However, this is a great opportunity for Decatur to unite and have one great country club."

He said nationwide not many cities the size of Decatur have two country clubs that can succeed.

He is expecting about 30 to 40 Decatur members to move their memberships to Burningtree.

"We're hoping for more," Villarreal said.

He said his club currently has about 435 members and he would like to see the membership grow to 500 to 600 members.

"We've spent more than $1 million in renovations in this club since we purchased it in December of 2017. We have plans to cover the back patio to make it an outdoor eating area," he said. "I believe that will be a big plus for our members. We want to add a new chip range to the golf course." or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.