Deep in the pines at the southern edge of Lake Sam Rayburn, the lights are off at Rayburn Country’s club.
The dining room at the Timbers on the Green restaurant looks set for one last dinner. Silverware is neatly wrapped in linen and placed at each seat. The bar of deep brown timber looks finely polished even in the dark.
Built-in 1968, what was once planned as one of the cornerstones to grow the community finished out its last week in relative peace, with the occasional resident using the putting green or strolling around the course.
The greens of the golf course, which some residents will proudly point out were designed by Robert Trent Jones, still appear partially manicured, if not covered in some of the leaves and debris that come with winter. The flags at each hole mark the path for no one in particular.
As of Friday, Rayburn Country’s14,000-square-foot clubhouse, its golf course, hotel, and swimming pool are closed indefinitely.
After an impasse between residents of the 3,300-acre community and the investor group that operated its facilities, ownership has chosen to walk away, leaving homeowners and the greater lake community to ponder the impact on their communities and their property values.
Several entities help keep Rayburn Country running, but they are mostly divided between groups that represent homeowners and rental properties and the group of investors that has been managing community amenities for the past 10 years.
In 2010, the main homeowners group, Rayburn Country Association, was looking for a way to bring in private management to manage the club and golf course. As described by Gary Collins, president of the local development district and a longtime resident, the amenities had fallen into disrepair over time and the association was looking for a way to restore them to their former glory.
“It became a challenge to keep it going. It was just a lot of maintenance work for a homeowners association to handle,” Collins said. “When the plan came up, they jumped on it: 98% percent voted in favor.”
Several investors, most of whom were residents, including Walter Umphrey of the Provost Umphrey law firm, pooled about $3.2 million to purchase the assets and reportedly invested another $15 million in renovations. These investors formed a group called Rayburn Country Redevelopment and worked with the associations for homeowners, condos and timeshares in an effort to grow the community again.
As a part of the contract between the Rayburn Country Association and Rayburn Country Redevelopment, the property owners agreed to pay fees as a part of their annual association dues to the investment group to subsidize upkeep, netting about $390,000 per year for club operations.
Michael Havard, one of the principal Rayburn Country Redevelopment investors, said the group decided to make the purchase because it seemed necessary to keep Rayburn Country thriving.
“We understood it as an attempt to save the community at the time,” Havard said. “It was bankrupt when we bought it and we knew it would take some effort to restore.”
The two groups, property owners and investors, signed an agreement for 10 years in which management and the Rayburn Country Association said the community flourished.
Clyde Pederson, a resort management veteran previously with development firm William Cole, originally managed the resort as a consultant with a management firm but stayed as the sole general manager when Rayburn Country Redevelopment chose to end its contract in 2014.
During the last 10 years, Pederson said, about 400 building permits of some kind, from additions to new homes, were approved in the community as it saw a surge of interest.
“When I first got there, I think its value was in the $16 million range,” Pederson said. “Now, it’s in excess of $200 million. If you look at the annual sales, they went from $10 million or $12 million dollars to closing at $85 million in 2018.”
But, on Jan. 10, the agreement between the investors and the property owners expired without any resolution.
Both parties went back and forth with negotiations for a new deal as early as last May, according to official minutes for the development district.
Collins is a resident of the community, but as president of Jasper County Development District No. 1, he said he felt like the district had a duty to try to keep the conversation going since the future of Rayburn Country would greatly affect the district’s mission to promote tourism in the area.
After its lawyers signed off that there weren’t any conflicts, the development district acted as a kind of mediator, hosting town halls at the club and even hiring a consulting firm to explore what would be the best move going forward according to best practices at other clubs.
Havard said the investors asked for the continued payment of dues to help cover the operations, amounting to about $13 a month per household in the association.
Amanda Haralson, a member of the Rayburn Country Association board of directors, said she felt like negotiations were amicable, and she understands why the investor group eventually made its decision to talk away.
“The RCR put a lot of money into the venture and are probably ready for a change,” Haralson said. “Speaking for myself, I’m grateful for the investment up here and we are ready for growth.”
From a third-party perspective, Collins said the main conflict seemed to center around the homeowners association wanting greater control of decisions with the amenities in exchange for its financial contribution.
“The RCA wanted performance of the resort looked at as part of the deal,” Collins said. “Performance goals is what the RCA wanted and the funding is what RCR wanted, but they could never come to terms with one another.
About three days after the contract expired, letters and emails started circulating to residents that the investment group would be stepping away from the operation since it viewed the venture as futile without some kind of community support.
The closest town to Rayburn Country is the unincorporated community of Brookeland, population 300. There are more homes in Rayburn Country, although most of the people who own them are part-time residents.
Information from Texas Realtors shows almost 1,800 completed homes across Rayburn Country, ranging from around $300,000 to more than $2 million. At least several hundred other lots could have future homes, but some will never be built upon because of their condition.
Collins said the Rayburn Country Association provided about $25,000 in funding to the district each year, mostly from the hotel room tax collected from stays at the resort. That is about a quarter of the more than $100,000 in hotel taxes the district took in during 2018.
“We tried to preserve that revenue source to promote more tourism as a part of our mission,” Collins said.
Revenue from Rayburn Country played a big part in helping host the area’s other lifeblood: fishing tournaments.
Collins said the development district contributed $45,000 to host the latest tournament in January on Lake Sam Rayburn, which hit the lake a week before Rayburn Country closed.
The lake hosts dozens of tournaments throughout the year, from community events to high school and college competitions, but it is also one of the rare lakes in the country to host two of the biggest players in competitive fishing.
Fishing League Worldwide, the largest competitive fishing organization in the world, hosted one of its major bass tournaments at Lake Sam Rayburn on Jan. 24, bringing nearly 200 different anglers from across the country. The top prize was $100,000, with thousands of dollars in smaller prizes.
“This is one of the top five lakes in the whole country for this kind of event,” said Bill Taylor, tournament director for the league. “It’s got a diverse stock and the right infrastructure to support us. It rates pretty high.”
In April, Sealy Outdoors will host one of the largest tournaments for amateurs on Sam Rayburn, awarding as much as $600,000 in cash prizes.
Collins said the tournaments help bring publicity to the area but also generate much-needed revenue for towns and businesses across the region.
“One fisherman spends roughly $170 per night in lodging, food and other expenses,” Collins said. “That’s how the district recaptures its costs, but it doesn’t just stop here. People stay in hotels from Jasper to Lufkin for these tournaments.”
He said the lake’s reputation goes a long way with tournament promoters, but Rayburn Country also played a special role. Along with helping bring steady revenue to keep funding the lakeside Umphrey Family Pavilion for tournaments and promotion costs, the resort often was a part of the pitch to visitors.
When fishing league representatives, prospective business investors in the region or other guests came to town, they were usually brought to the club for dinner to show what the area had to offer.
Collins said it still isn’t clear how the loss of Rayburn Country’s resort amenities will affect the district’s ability to promote tourism, but it will likely have to amend its budget and project revenues before the six-month mark. That may also mean scaling back on some of its promotional activities.
The continued improvement to property values in the community is also a much- needed lifeline to the local public schools.
Kevin McCugh, superintendent at Brookeland Independent School District, said the administration is concerned about the impact the resort’s closure would have to their budget, but they likely won’t know the possibilities until the Jasper County Appraisal District submits its tax rate projections.
“We do anticipate a reduction,” McCugh said. “A lot of the homes on the lakeside, those values may not be affected as much in terms of the closing, but it’s going to affect everyone in some way.”
The district had more than $251 million in taxable homestead assets in the last fiscal year.
So far, the added homes and increased values in the past decade have allowed the school district to grow without any major changes to its tax rate.
McCugh said voters approved a 13-cent rate increase in 2010 to help make up for waning state contributions and frozen federal funds, but it was able to give that back over three years by not taking its yearly allowed rate increases.
It has not issued any bond measures, even for its new elementary school currently under construction.
According to the Texas comptroller’s website, it is the only district out of nine with around 400 students that didn’t have outstanding bond debt in 2018.
McCugh said the most immediate impact for his students will be losing the site for the district golf tournaments, which had been hosted at Rayburn Country.
“We’ve had a lot of state qualifiers, both boys and girls,” McCugh said. “We also have a state semifinalist for tennis that practiced on their court.”
Par for the course
Rayburn Country isn’t the only golf course and resort in a hard spot.
The development district paid international golf club management firm Troon from Scottsdale, Arizona, to conduct a study on the dynamics of the community and the finances of the club to find the best strategy going forward.
Troon reported an increasingly typical story for golf clubs across the country.
After meeting with management and running its revenue numbers, the researcher wrote that the club and its overall amenities had room for improvement but we’re well-positioned to be successful.
The researcher calculated that the club would need to take in a minimum of $1.75 million yearly to remain successful, and highlighted lodging and golf excursion packages as a key area that could help make that possible.
But even with a solid strategy, Troon warned that the venture wouldn’t work without some form of community support.
“The bottom line is that without any operating subsidy, the club is currently not in a position to remain financially viable,” the Troon representative wrote. “That being said, with the proper operating discipline and a renewed focus on marketing, the club can be returned to self-sufficiency and, ultimately, profitability.”
The author closed out the report summary with a warning, using a case study of another community in Columbia, South Carolina, that lost its club and saw plunging property values.
According to Troon and other analysts of the golf industry, golf courses can turn an average community into a hot commodity but rarely become self-sufficient in the current environment. One reason for the struggle at courses is gradually declining interest in golf across the country.
According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell to 20.9 million in 2016 from 30 million in 2002, a 30% drop.
Rayburn Country’s revenue was led by food and beverage sales of about $454,000 in 2018. That was followed by golf, $423,000; lodging, $347,000; membership dues, $240,000; and pro shop sales, $67,000. But overall revenue fell about $200,000 short of Troon’s recommended $1.75 million goal.
With community support, Troon said the club could pay for any unexpected shortfalls with its subsidy instead of cutting expenses and avoiding regular capital improvements.
From a resident’s perspective, Haralson said she wasn’t sure how connected the community’s future was to golf.
“I’m not sure how I view that,” Haralson said. “It’s great to have a well-run golf course and club, but it’s too early to say if it built the community.”
Haralson said she and other residents were attracted to the area for its natural beauty, including Lake Sam Rayburn.
Pederson said the scenary may not be enough to maintain a thriving community.
Pederson worked with The Woodlands developer George Mitchell on that project north of Houston, and he helped develop resorts across Lakes Conroe, Travis and Livingston. It was relatively easy to attract residents in those areas because those lakes are a relatively quick drive from the large metropolitan areas of Houston and Austin.
But they are also lakes built for recreation, unlike Sam Rayburn, which is heavily regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Residents have to abide by Corps rules and most are unable to build anything along the shoreline, such as a boat dock.
Pederson said those restrictions, coupled with its remoteness, made Lake Sam Rayburn a tough sell. It was telling, he said, that thousands of lots remained undeveloped despite being open for so many decades.
“If I had a golf course like that out there 30 minutes from Houston, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said. “But Rayburn Country is the toughest deal I’ve ever seen.”
Regardless of what comes next, Pederson said the clock was ticking.
“Unfortunately, in this business, by May or June the golf course will be unrecoverable,” he said. “It would cost too much to bring it back into shape and make money on it.”
Havard said the investment group had already considered selling the club before the agreement ended. For two years, Rayburn Country Redevelopment entertained offers but received interest from only a nursing home company.
“It is a sad situation for the community and nobody wants to see it,” Havard said. “We just couldn’t continue to operate as we had without some kind of stake from the rest of the community.”
He said the group will continue to look for some kind of buyer that can use the club, but he wasn’t sure what that would look like or how long it could take.
Members of the Rayburn Country Association are holding out hope for some kind of compromise, either with the investors of Rayburn Country Redevelopment or with some other management group.
“As Rayburn Country enters another period of evolutionary change, RCA acknowledges its primary purpose as a homeowners association under the laws of the state of Texas and expresses a desire to work collaboratively with owners of Rayburn Country Resort and other partners for mutual benefit,” the association board of directors wrote in a statement.
Haralson said she believes that with improvements to its major roads, including the U.S. 96 and 69 corridors, the region is ready for a boom.
“It’s part of the evolution of Rayburn Country,” she said. “We have more residents and more building happening here than ever. As a person that likes change and thrives on progress, I view it in that manner.”
The Rayburn Country Association also believes growth is coming to the area but noted “the missing active ingredient is professional management and marketing for the club, golf course, hotel and nearby marina.”
It hopes to see that change with “collaboration and effective leadership.”
Back in Brookeland, Collins drove the main road and pointed out all the major businesses. About a year ago, the community got a Dollar General, which has already expanded thanks to customers thankful they don’t have to drive into Jasper for a loaf of bread.
There is also a new tackle shop in town, along with a boat dealership from Beaumont to entice anglers headed up to the lake. Some still swear by the town’s original tackle store, which has operated for decades.
Collins also points out The Stump, Brookeland’s only restaurant now that the club is shut down.
He said he’s seen things grow and change in the time he’s been in Rayburn Country. He’s a fisherman himself who moved with his wife to retire in the woods after decades as a school superintendent.
He said he’s not exactly sure what will happen now that negotiations have seemingly ended, but he doesn’t think things are over.
“We’ll still do our best to keep the conversation going now,” he said. “Maybe some people don’t know yet how serious this will be, but something is coming. When it’s gone, they’ll miss it.”