Melvin Graham – A Vision Uncompromised
In the lush farmlands of Union County, there is a new paradigm being shaped. The wide-open spaces, old grain silos and winding roads are now hosting a 500-acre, state-of-the-art Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, called Longview. It is a members’ course, meaning only the fortunate few who can afford the luxurious homes or non-resident memberships, and their guests, can play.
The history of the land is rich. In 1900, Melvin Graham, owner of Graham Brothers’ Dairy Farm and brother of Reverend Billy Graham, purchased a plot of land to put his dry cattle out to pasture. The rolling hills, sparkling creeks and native beauty captivated his son, Melvin F. Graham, who diligently worked on the farm as a child. Located in Weddington, behind Rea Road, the spot then called Longview Farm inspired a vision in the young Graham that is finally being realized. Graham recalls, “As a kid, I walked the property all the time, just appreciating this God-given, wonderful canvas, and knew that it was in my destiny to maintain it, preserve it, and help it mature.”
For twelve years, Mel Graham, owner of Graham Enterprises of the Carolinas, LLC, a development firm responsible for several award-winning golf courses in the South, purchased parcels of surrounding farmland as they became available, and in bits and pieces laid the half of the 500-acre area needed to develop Longview Golf Course. In December 1999, after scouting various investors to partner on the development, he approached Steve Puckett, a friend with whom he had had land dealings in prior years.
Steve Puckett, founder and chairman of the board of MedCath, a group of cardiovascular specialist hospitals, brought an extensive and successful investment history to the project. He also had a similar love for development and construction, as well as a business philosophy that Graham found perfect for a sound partnership. Graham explains, “At that point we had had several discussions about land investments, and I think Steve really started to see that I knew what I was talking about.”
Graham says it also didn’t hurt that the proposal in question was a golf course. “Steve always used to say, ‘I am so busy, I can’t even get a couple holes of golf in these days. I wish I could just walk out my back door when I had a little time, hit a few balls, and not have to worry about tee times and all that extra planning.’”
Graham had found his angle. After doing the due diligence, speaking with Jack Nicklaus about the land’s attributes and contracting for Nicklaus’s custom course design, he approached Puckett. “It was fun,” Graham says. “I said, ‘Now Steve, remember how you said you really wanted a nice golf course with no tee times? Well, I found one for you. All you have to do is help me buy it, and build it.’”
It took Puckett just ten days to mull over the plans and close on the acquisition of the remaining 270 acres needed to build the course. When asked about his decisiveness, Puckett explains, “I don’t know how to say it, other than the development was a no-brainer. There was no way it could fail. I had intimate knowledge of Mel’s past investments, had played his fabulous World Tour Course in Myrtle Beach, and had respect for the way he does business.”
Both Graham and Puckett share a history of construction and development. Both started their careers in construction and renovation. Graham began as a handyman who moved to light construction, home building and later more aggressive developments including several golf courses. Puckett supported himself at the University of Alabama by renovating homes and apartments, and began investing in land as soon as he could afford it. Via these savvy investments he was eventually able to finance of the startup of MedCath, as well as sundry other projects.
The two partners also share a common respect for the highest quality and ethical standards, design concepts and land preservation. Graham says that his involvement with golf courses is based largely on a desire to preserve beauty, to create a permanent park, to keep the serenity of open spaces. “The Longview Course is also way for me to be a good steward; to put the land to good use, and also pursue my great passion – farming and preserving the legacy of the land, and my family.” He adds, “Creating and maintaining a golf course is very similar to high-tech farming.”
Puckett explains, “Here we had 500 acres of land that we could easily have built 1,100 homes on. But neither Mel nor I wanted to just build boxes on top of one another. We opted to build 340 homes on large home sites, with the highest standards in design and construction.”
The extravagance of the homes is absolutely breathtaking. No artificial materials are permitted. Only real stone, real stucco and real wood adorn these houses. “We have carefully selected eight builders with financial stability and strong track records. We wanted seasoned, talented builders, but also builders that had been through tough economic battles and came through them. The specifications we use in Longview are stringent, and that creates a tough financial requirement. Every factor in the process had to be bulletproof, and that included the financial strength of the builders,” Graham continues.
Builders with the privilege to build in Longview include Arcadia Homes, Carolina Phoenix, Colonnade Custom Homes, Grimmer-Kempf and Associates, LLC, Hughes & Associates, Jas-Am, Inc., Regal Custom Home Builders, LLC, and Unique Homes of Charlotte, Inc. Homes range from the $600,000s to $4 million. The architecture has a deliberate emphasis on Manor-style homes native to England and Scotland, favorite travel spots for Graham.
“In addition to adding the bucolic splendor and history of these places, by using English manor-style homes, we are able to preserve a bit of the history of the farm. We use materials that will make all structures appear authentically aged.” A vine-covered grain silo stands serenely on the second green, and course maintenance houses like golf cart storage and pump houses are camouflaged to resemble old manor smokehouses. The curbing on Longview’s streets is edged in old pieces of marbled stone and streetlamps resembling gas lanterns line the community. The clubhouse also significantly strays from other exclusive course standards. The partners chose to forgo commonplace federal-style architecture and replaced it with a 25,000-square-foot English manor mansion.
Graham does not apologize for these excesses. “To me, the big home sites, gated entry, architectural standards and strict guidelines show a love and respect for the land. Plus, they ensure consistency which protects the value of the community, and ensures its longevity.”
These indulgences are even more impressive when considering the capital it takes to build a course and the way Puckett and Graham chose to finance Longview. To date, the investment stands between $45 to $50 million, which includes a $2 million fee for Jack Nicklaus’ Signature brand course, but does not include the original cost of the land. Add to that the fact that Graham and Puckett chose to build out the community without presales and the result is pretty astonishing.
Elaborates Graham, “Steve and I had the capital, the reputation and solid financial portfolios to build Longview in what we thought was the right manner. We presented it to several lenders, and Bank of America gave us a great opportunity to get the capital up-front, without having to sell the customary 30 percent of the home sites in advance. This way, when people visit the course, they see what they will be getting, rather than a big patch of dirt and a drawing of what it is ‘supposed’ to look like.”
The community also quite obviously attracts a certain market. “I knew going into this venture that I wanted to create it on the high-end, for a more stable customer. There is a certain group of people that have been accustomed to quality, and have what I call ‘personal or lifestyle funds.’ They are folks who don’t have to rely on their investment portfolio or their 401(k), because if they did they most likely wouldn’t be able to live here. Our clients prefer an air of exclusivity, quality, and also an assurance that the investment they make in their residence will be respected in terms of future development, community covenants and restrictions.”
Graham says that his focus on perfection is demonstrated in the designs of Longview’s course creator, Jack Nicklaus himself. “I looked at several designers, and only Jack had the vision, commitment, talent and marketability that matched our goals. Jack is involved from start to finish, and he plays the field in his head as he creates it. You don’t get a representative for Nicklaus designing your course when you go with a Signature course. Jack is right there with his sketchpad, making changes, and aggressive decisions that ultimately provide for the most beautiful, challenging and enjoyable experience you can have on a course.”
Graham says the golfing experience at Longview provides residents the chance to go out and play golf at their leisure, without having to make a tee time. “Jack created a course that will be challenging, but also fun with all the holes designed for various types and levels of play. The character and play on the holes also changes with conditions, so that the course will never get boring for our members.”
Puckett and Graham are equally enthusiastic about the technical and aesthetic knowledge trademarked by his designs. Says Puckett, “Throughout his golf career Jack has obviously played every reputable course there is and has appreciated them from a player’s perspective. What I found surprising though was his incredible talent as an artist. He has been classically trained in course design and has been involved with over 200 courses. He brought the lessons from each of those experiences to the table. He literally sketched changes on his notepad on the top of the truck as we drove through the course.”
A passionate golfer, Puckett can vouch for the results, “He’s given us six beginning holes that are long and require lots of power. The next four require a great deal of precision. There are three more that give you a bit of a respite to enjoy the scenery, and then he caps it off with four pro finishing holes that will give any decent golfer a run for his money.”
Interestingly, Graham is not a golfer, and no longer picks up a club. “I tried it years back, and found that the sport wasn’t my passion, rather it was the farming and the land that is my calling. Maintaining the precarious balance of the environmental integrity, the history of the land and the resulting community is what drives me. Plus, I have found that being to engaged in the sport can compete with business objectives, so I feel fairly confident that I should stay on the outside of the game a bit.”
Union County is certainly glad to have Steve Puckett and Mel Graham in the neighborhood. The Longview community will increase the county’s tax base by $500 million, and has added prestige and the possibility of new retail opportunities for the surrounding area. But aside from an inaugural round by Nicklaus on October 20th of this year, don’t expect to see any famous faces or PGA Tours coming to Union County.
Explains Graham, “The tours are exciting and fun, but very disruptive to a community.” The golf is for members only, and any subsequent retail, school and business additions will be outside Longview’s glorious, and gated entrance.