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Residents of mountain resort unite to save it from foreclosure, and now its on the rebound
SKYVALLEY1
Sky Valley Inc. board members, from left, David Goodrow, Frank Norton Sr., Steve Mason and Milt Gillespie stand on the greens of the group’s newly acquired golf course. - photo by BRANDEE A. THOMAS

Where others have fallen short, residents in one Blue Ridge Mountain community are determined to go the distance.

The Sky Valley Resort and Golf Club is the center of the Sky Valley community in Rabun County, which is why several residents decided to band together and rescue the resort with a tainted past from foreclosure.

Now the newly renamed Sky Valley Club is back on solid financial footing with plans to expand and improve in the years to come.

But getting there was no easy task.

"Our No. 1 obstacle was money. No bank would touch financing a golf course," said Milt Gillespie, one of the board members of Sky Valley Inc.

"There was no reason for anybody to buy a golf course in today’s time, except for the fact that this is the centerpiece of our whole community.

"We only have about 200 registered voters in Sky Valley, but in the summer, the population swells to about 2,500. This is the gem of Sky Valley. This city could die without it. And would have."

 

Skiing to sliding

The community was originally a part of the Kingwood Resort, located in Clayton in central Rabun County. Larry McClure and two investors purchased 400 acres of Kingwood to develop into a ski resort in 1968.

With the help of developer Frank Rickmon, McClure’s group carved out Sky Valley, which combined residential and recreational components on the site that blossomed to include 2,400 acres of land.

Although the ski resort — the only one in the state — was popular with visitors, it experienced monetary shortfalls as the national economy suffered through a recession in the early 1970s. To help generate more income, the investors decided to build timeshare units and condominiums.

"That was kind of the heyday down here when they were selling timeshares and condos," Gillespie said

"You’d come in for a two-day or three-day weekend with free rounds of golf if you’d tour and purchase property. That’s how a lot of our people wound up here."

In 1978, Sky Valley became an official city. By 1984, McClure decided to bow out of the resort business and sold controlling interests to Dr. Miles Mason, one of the original Sky Valley investors.

Although Mason and his two sons did their best to keep the resort afloat, they ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1987. By that time, the resort had grown to include the ski operations, a lodge, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and other plats of land.

From there, the resort passed through several rounds of owners, bankruptcies and new investors.

A group of investors, including David Spears, purchased the property and transformed the fairways.

"(Spears) really did a magnificent job," Gillespie said. "He put millions of dollars into redoing the golf course. He gave us an absolute first-class course."

Spears’ group ran the resort until 2004, Gillespie says, when it was purchased by Harrison Merrill of the Merrill Trust Group.

"Then in 2009, the economy just imploded," Gillespie said. "Through no fault of Merrill Trust, the property went into foreclosure."

After three years with their community’s prized amenity sitting in limbo under bank ownership, a group of eight residents decided to circle their wagons.

Forward press

"There were a couple of attempts by some other investors to buy it out of foreclosure. The last one was an investment group out of Athens. For whatever reason, they withdrew their contract," Gillespie said.

"At that time, James Temple called several of us and said, ‘We gotta do something.’"

That "we" grew into an advisory panel of eight Sky Valley residents: Gillespie, Temple, Frank Norton Sr., Bob Larsen, David Goodrow, Hughel Goodgame, Allen Jackson and David Spears.

"This isn’t about eight individuals. It’s about a community that really came together to make this happen," Gillespie

"The eight of us just happened to be the agitators to pull the community together to get this thing going."

The brain trust of mostly retirees began meeting in January to hash out ideas to save the resort.

"The biggest obstacle was finding a workable solution that would actually cross the finish line," David Goodrow said.

"We would meet at Bob Larsen’s house for hours, bouncing ideas off each other. Trying to find one that would work and that the community would support.

"The real linchpin of it was that in those eight people were all of the necessary skill sets. We didn’t have to call in anyone, except a lawyer. We had people with accounting backgrounds, (Norton) with all his experience in real estate, and others with a lot of experience in and around clubs, who knew what it would take to succeed."

Ultimately, it was Gillespie’s ideas to sell 100 shares of stock in Sky Valley Inc. for $10,000 each that helped the group overcome its financing hurdle, Goodrow said.

"Friends started calling friends and then the snowball effect started kicking in," Gillespie said about finding founding members to purchase the stock.

That snowball generated enough income so that the incorporated group could purchase the property outright, since bank financing wasn’t an option.

"Every area has people who have more money or who are in better circumstances than others. This community is no different," Norton said.

"But it wasn’t just the affluent who did this. It was the whole community.

"There were people who had the money (on hand) and others who made an effort to raise money, so that they could help do something about this situation."

Final stretch

"The excitement in this community right now is absolutely fantastic," Gillespie said.

Since finalizing the sale on May 29, the Sky Valley group has been busy planning how to take the club to the next level.

As the superintendent of the golf course, Steve Mason, whose family owned the club until the early 1990s, is charged with keeping the fairways in tip-top shape, while the board of directors sets its sights on growth.

The group is working on a plan to offer social membership packages. They’re also looking to complete the clubhouse, which is currently just a shell.

"The goal is to have a vibrant, community-based facility that is privately owned, but open for public play," Goodrow said.

"We want this to be the social hub for Sky Valley and the surrounding community. That desire is what prompted 100 people to put up 10 grand on hope."

Although the club has a championship golf course, with various tees that can stretch the course from 4,900 to 6,900 yards, that’s not the main focus.

"I’d say no more than 40 percent of our members are golfers. This isn’t about golf. This is about bettering the entire community of Sky Valley," Gillespie said.

"I’d say the No. 1 (boon) of this is the social life that the clubhouse will bring to this area. Golf just happens to come along with it."

After seeing the community rally to make the unusual purchase, the volunteer board of directors is optimistic about the community’s future.

"This is going to change the values of property. It’s going to change how desirable it is to be here. It’s going to change the synergy of the community and the people and how they get along," Norton said.

"After this, there are going to be a lot less can’t do’s and a whole lot more can do’s.

"This is a community that is taking care of its own destiny."

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