When Michon Shinn's family moved to Slidell in the mid-1960s, Country Club Estates — with its large, wooded lots and spacious houses — was an enviable address, not least because of Pinewood Country Club, the golf course and clubhouse that were the social and recreational hub of the neighborhood.
Shinn remembers coaching swimming at the club and attending Wednesday night buffets where a family could take four kids for a nice meal out at a time when the suburban city had far fewer restaurants than today.
Half a century later, golfers are still swinging clubs on the course that meanders over 96 acres. Two Rotary Clubs meet at the clubhouse every week, as well as other civic groups. And Wednesday night buffets remain a draw.
Shinn, whose grandfather was one of the builders who constructed homes there, returned as an adult and is now president of its homeowners association.
But the future of Pinewood Country Club is uncertain, and homeowners are worried. One proposed solution is selling the club to the city, but it remains to be seen whether officials can muster the money or the political will to buy Slidell's oldest golf course, which opened in 1963.
Pinewood Country Club — one of three golf courses in Slidell — is experiencing financial problems in an era when golf is losing players nationally and is struggling to reach what Carr McCalla, executive director of the Louisiana Golf Association, calls an equilibrium between supply and demand.
In Baton Rouge, three country clubs sold out to developers in recent years, McCalla noted.
Slidell also has changed. The engineers who worked at Michoud on the space shuttle external tank program are gone, and the drop in oil prices has affected people in that industry — the kind of residents who would typically belong to a country club.
Also, kids who once might have jumped at the chance to spend a day on the golf course, even in hot weather, now prefer air-conditioning and video games, McCalla said.
But even if people aren't hitting the golf course every weekend, the thought of losing the club and the additional value it brings to their property is creating anxiety among Country Club Estates residents, Shinn said. They worry about what a developer might do with the land.
The zoning for the course is the city's most restrictive residential zoning, requiring half-acre lots, but neighbors still fear the specter of apartments as well as the additional flooding that any development might bring.
Pinewood began as an exclusive private club in which members had to buy a share. At one time, the corporation had 500 shareholders, but that's dwindled to about 100, according to Slidell City Councilman Bill Borchert, who lives in the neighborhood.
Club membership no longer involves a hefty initiation fee and stock purchase. But it has fallen from 350-plus golf members 10 years ago to about 200 now, according to Renee Warren, president of the country club. That doesn't count the club's social members.
The golf course is now considered semi-private, and the club has made many efforts to boost the numbers, including a door-to-door drive in the neighborhood of 500 homes and creating different membership levels.
But the most radical idea arose this spring when the club approached city officials with an offer to sell the whole facility — golf course, pool, tennis courts and clubhouse — for $1.2 million, the amount the corporation owes to the bank and other creditors.
Warren said the club can't sell the land for a profit because its bylaws won't allow the shareholders to gain financially.
Borchert said the idea is a no-brainer for the city. The land is the largest section of green space left inside Slidell's city limits, outside of Fremaux Town Center, which is slated for more commercial development. The next biggest piece of green space is a paltry eight acres. To be able to buy 96 acres for what's owed and not the value of the land is an incredible bargain, Borchert said.
Louis Ochoa of Nola Grill runs the food and catering end of things at Pinewood, and he is interested in a 10-year lease and has a potential partner to run the golf course, Borchert said.
Homeowners like Shinn want to see a deal that will keep things largely as they are.
If the city buys Pinewood, someone can lease it from the city and have an opportunity to make a go of it, Borchert said. The city would recover its investment in 20 to 30 years, he said.
But even if keeping the golf course going does not prove viable, Borchert sees the purchase as a plus. "We know we need land for recreation," he said. "The worst-case scenario for the city if we're not able to run it as a golf course is that we get land for softball fields and soccer fields."
Paying for it is another question. Last week, the City Council tabled a motion to spend $1.2 million in bond money for Pinewood Country Club, with drainage listed as the purpose.
Flooding is an issue on the western side of the neighborhood, and homes from the clubhouse to the end of Country Club Boulevard have all taken on water at least once, Borchert said.
Mayor Freddy Drennan said the city has already spent money on retention ponds on club property, done through a cooperative endeavor agreement under his predecessor. Drennan thinks that cost as much as $400,000.
One possibility is that the city can use the land for additional drainage improvements. But the city can't use bond money to buy improvements, such as the clubhouse, and that's why the council tabled the proposal indefinitely last week.
Chief Administrative Officer Tim Mathison said another potential funding source is the city's second supplemental budget, which will be introduced at Tuesday's meeting and voted on Jan. 10. Drennan said the details are still being worked out and are unlikely to come together by Tuesday.
But finding the money is only half of the issue; politics is the other.
Borchert said he expects a split vote at the council. He pointed to comments at last week's meeting by Fred McDonald, a frequent critic of government spending. McDonald called the proposed purchase a government bailout. He questioned the city's fiscal conservatism and pointed to needs for street and drainage work.
Borchert acknowledged that Slidell has infrastructure needs. But many of those will be addressed over the next five years with $75 million in FEMA money.
The cost of buying the country club, $1.2 million, would pay just half the cost of paving Audubon Drive, he said.