Taking A Chance
Taking a chance
A LOCAL DEVELOPER BRINGS RTJ GOLF COURSE TO DOTHAN
Hugh Wheelless will never forget the moment when renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. visited his farmhouse in 1990 to discuss his property and the possible construction of a course in Dothan. The result was a moment that helped create not only a golf course but also a foundation for growth.
“I asked him if we could have a golf course around here,” Wheelless says of Jones, who was 92 during the 1990 meeting. “He said, ‘God builds golf courses, and
I find them.’ I asked him what he thought of my land, and he said, ‘You’ve got a golf course here.’”
And Jones was correct. Highland Oaks golf course was the result, which also led to the construction of Highlands Park, with its beautiful lawns and quiet streets. The projects illustrate how growth can broadly benefit the community.
The course and 600-home subdivision were built in the early 1990s, a time when Wiregrass Electric Cooperative mostly served rural areas with miles in between each meter. The Highlands, and the other subdivisions built in west Dothan years later, provided population density, which helps keep members’ cost as low as possible.
“The greater density allows fixed costs to be spread over more units,” WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro says. “We are still a rural cooperative, and we are never going to have the density that larger utility companies have. But we are in a lot better shape today because of growth in west Dothan.”
Highland Oaks is one of 11 stops on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which has courses from Huntsville to Mobile. The Dothan course features three nine-hole championship courses and a nine-hole short course. Golf Digest has recognized the complex as one of the nation’s best and most affordable places to play.
Wheelless was the catalyst behind the course and subdivision. A local businessman and developer, he took a chance more than 20 years ago to help grow Dothan and to turn the Wiregrass into a destination.
The idea for the system of world-class golf courses began in the 1980s with David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. He enlisted Jones to help.
“Dr. Bronner had this vision of making Alabama a destination state and not just a pass-through state,” Wheelless says. “He wanted to stop people in Huntsville, Opelika, Dothan and Mobile. He wanted people to go there to play quality golf.”
Bronner traveled the state to speak at local civic clubs to muster support for his grand plan. It was at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Dothan where Bronner asked for a landowner to donate property and the city to provide road-building aid. The goal was to avoid debt on land after completion of the project.
Alfred Saliba, the mayor of Dothan at the time who wanted a spot on the golf trail, went to work. He sent representatives from the chamber of commerce to speak with Wheelless about donating 400 acres of his land on the west side of Dothan.
Wheelless owned a farm and a small airport, and Saliba felt the pastures and open land used for the airport would be perfect for a golf course.
“I was doing fine at the time, and life was good,” Wheelless says. “Then the chamber came in and asked me to donate 400 acres of land, and all I thought was my daddy would come back and kill me if I did that. I politely escorted them out the door.”
However, Saliba and the chamber weren’t going to let this opportunity go. After a month or so, they invited Wheelless to travel with them to see the construction progress on the Oxmoor Valley course in Birmingham. They wanted him to see the big things happening around the state.
Following the visit, Wheelless and representatives from the Dothan Chamber of Commerce went to Bobby Vaughan’s house in Birmingham. Bronner had appointed Vaughan, who had formed Sun- Belt Golf Corporation, to lead the development of the courses on the trail.
“When we pulled in at his house, there were five cars lined up along the side of the road,” Wheelless says. “When we got out, all their doors opened and people got out with maps and aerial photos. I wondered who they were, and it was people from around the state trying to give their land to build these golf courses. The whole way home I felt like I was missing something, and this might be a big opportunity.”
Wheelless returned home and wrestled with the idea of donating his land for the course. He felt it was an opportunity but also couldn’t fathom giving away that much land.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night, at like 1 o’clock in the morning, walk outside and look up at the sky thinking somebody has got to help me,” Wheelless says. “I didn’t have the kind of vision I needed for something like this.”
So, he enlisted the help of somebody he knew he could trust — Saliba, the mayor of Dothan. Saliba had been a friend to Wheelless and his family for a long time.
“I wanted to meet with him as a friend and not as a mayor,” Wheelless says. “I went in and looked him dead in the eye and said, ‘You know my family, my land, and you know me. If this situation were reversed, and it was your family and your land, would you do the deal?’ He said absolutely. He didn’t even hesitate. I took a deep breath and felt a sigh of relief. I felt like I could trust him because he was my friend, and he was the kind of man you could trust because he was honest.”
From that point on, Wheelless was 100 percent committed to bringing the golf course to Dothan.
Making it happen
Jones eventually traveled to Dothan to inspect and approve the land for a course. He loved the swamp, and he would eventually use the runway at the Wheelless Airport as the fairway on the No. 9 hole. Wheelless, who also bought land adjacent to the developing golf course property, went through the long process of addressing environmental issues associated with the airport and underground storage tanks on the land. In the fall of 1993, the Highland Oaks course opened.
While the Highland Oaks course brought a world-class golf facility to the Wiregrass, it did more than benefit golfers. This course attracted visitors to the area, and it set the stage for growth. For example, additional housing options proved attractive to industries interested in locating in the area, an indirect benefit of the course and surrounding neighborhoods.
Wheelless developed much of the surrounding land, and his goal was to build homes around the course similar to those seen at country clubs. While Bronner did not have a similar vision, Wheelless did successfully negotiate an agreement.
A line formed outside the makeshift office of Wheelless on the morning he began selling plots of land to local builders and individuals.
“I sold 29 lots on that first day,” he says. “Dothan had never sold that many lots in one day. You don’t realize it when it’s happening, but we were off to the races.”
Today, Wheelless has continued to develop the land in west Dothan. There are more than 600 lots in the Highlands community, 250 in Highland’s South, 18 in Highland Lakes, and 184 units in the Highland Trails Apartments. He also has a new development, Highlands Cove, which currently has 53 lots.
“Wiregrass Electric is grateful that Mr. Wheelless was willing to take a chance and roll the dice to help the Wiregrass,” says Kimbro. “From Wiregrass Electric's standpoint, his developments have provided positive growth for our cooperative and this growth has led to economic development for our Wiregrass community. The homes in these subdivisions brought people to an area, and in this case, businesses followed. We are thankful for Mr. Wheelless' decision to take a chance and the success of the chance he took, has definitely been a benefit to our cooperative.”
Wheelless has also appreciated the great partnership with WEC.
“I worked off handshake-look-themin-the-eye deals my whole life,” he says. “Wiregrass Electric is also of that philosophy because it serves honest rural people. If we ever had a problem or concern, we would just call them. I have watched Wiregrass Electric grow and mature into a very well run corporation. We matured together, and we’ve had an excellent relationship and I look forward to continuing working with these good-honest folks.”