Can the Charlotte area’s best cheap golf course stay alive?

Can the Charlotte area’s best cheap golf course stay alive?
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The Birkdale Golf Club opened in 1997 to great fanfare. The Arnold Palmer-designed course was quickly voted the best new golf course in North Carolina, and with prices under $50 for 18 holes, it’s still one of the best values when it comes to hitting the links.

But while next-door neighbor Birkdale Village is booming, the Birkdale Golf Club is not.

The course fell into foreclosure a half-decade ago, and like many golf courses — it hasn’t recovered its financial footing.

How can the Charlotte area’s best cheap golf course be saved? The club’s new owners have pitched a $45 million plan to completely overhaul the golf course property and how it interacts with the rest of Huntersville.

Instead of a driving range and course tucked into the woods, the new Birkdale Golf Club would be a pedestrian-friendly destination with shops and restaurants.

There’s a lot at stake.

Many hundreds of homes in the Birkdale HOA back up to the golf course, and it occupies prime real estate. Both the course and the town of Huntersville are hoping they’ll hit on a solution.

“Golf courses across America are struggling. Charlotte’s no different,” said Peter Oelbaum, vice president of special projects for Romspen Investments, which now owns the golf club. “How do we give the golf course the best shot at survival?”

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Clubhouse at Birkdale Golf Club

A mixed-use development

His best guess at this point is a formula being used across the Charlotte region — a mixed-use development that combines live, work and play.

Plans filed with the town of Huntersville call for a 155-room hotel, 225 apartments, 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, and a refurbished clubhouse. It would mostly be built on land that’s now the golf club’s driving range and represents roughly $45 million in investment.

Oelbaum said they also plan to renovate the golf course itself, including replacing the greens with Bermuda grass.

The idea is for the hotel and the golf course to have a symbiotic relationship, with “stay and play” packages. The hotel could host conferences and the new clubhouse could perhaps land larger golf tournaments or corporate events.

The new Birkdale Golf Club would also extend the walkable Birkdale Village across the street and bring people closer to the course.

“All of these things we hope will be part of changing the relationship of the community to the golf course,” Oelbaum said.

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Driving range at Birkdale Golf Club

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Practice putting green near the first tee at Birkdale Golf Club

The redevelopment comes at a critical time.

In Charlotte and across the country, golf courses are struggling — particularly the public ones.

Skyrocketing land prices only increase the pressure. Why run a golf business when somebody will pay you big bucks to build townhomes?

The Larkhaven Golf Club closed down in December after six decades in east Charlotte. It’s becoming a 350-home subdivision.

Charlotte Golf Links closed down in 2014, and the land is now home to the Rea Farms development. Only “Golf Links Drive” remains.

At least a few others are on the ropes.

The Birkdale Golf Club is in the exact same boat. But beyond just being a golf course, it’s also a focal point of a neighborhood. The Birkdale HOA backs up to the golf course. The HOA did not respond to a request for comment, but homeowners certainly don’t want to live next to a defunct golf course.

They probably also don’t want to see rows of townhomes where the fairways and greens now stand.

“I definitely think that if the golf course closes, the residential property owners will take a major hit,” Huntersville commissioner Dan Boone said.

Can Birkdale Golf Club become a “mini-gem”?

All of these issues are weighing on the Huntersville Board of Commissioners, which must approve or deny the redevelopment plan this spring.  A public hearing on the rezoning is set for March 4.

The town doesn’t want to lose the golf course, to be sure. But they also want the plan to live up to its potential.

“I think the biggest concern is, what does this look like when complete?” said Huntersville resident Mike Murphy. “Birkdale has turned into a gem. Can we add a mini-gem across the street?”

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