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Saturday, August 11, 2018 — a sad, sad day at Happy Valley.
After 56 years, golf operations at Happy Valley Country Club ceased Saturday.
With speculation and rumors circulating since the winter, the move became official late last week with correspondence from majority owner Bill Powell to his remaining members:
“It is with great sadness that I wish to inform you that Happy Valley will cease golf operations effective close of business this Saturday 8/ 11/ 2018.
“This has been a difficult decision but necessitated by past and current economic conditions.
“We appreciate your loyalty and the many good times and friendships we have shared over the last 30-plus years. We wish all of you the very best in coming times.”
Powell, who first became involved in the course’s ownership in 1985, had not pinpointed a closing date until a huge dose of adversity struck last Monday night.
Some four inches of rain fell in a span of 90 minutes and, during the storm, lightning knocked out the water pump.
Thus, the 185 acres that include the 18-hole, par-72 course and facilities are now for sale. Powell reports that, in terms of equipment, all but three small items have been sold.
Powell indicated a couple of buyers have expressed interest. He emphasizes he’s not in a situation where he’s in a hurry to sell and speaks of an asking price that is in line with the tax value. He acknowledges that, in time, the amount could decline.
Regarding the property, Powell notes approximately 60 percent of the acreage can be developed and that approximately 25 percent is susceptible to flooding.
WHAT HE WANTS TO SEE
“I would hate to see it not be a golf course,” he commented. “I’ve had a lot of really, really great times out here.”
The property was purchased by Click Newcombe, Ralph Parker, Bill Jessup and Joe Eagles and became Happy Valley Country Club in 1962, The course expanded from nine holes to 18 holes in 1963.
The group of Donald Tomlinson, John Byrd, John Parks, Allen Bass, Wayne Narron and Alton Absher became owners in 1977. Powell joined Absher in assuming in ownership in 1985.
“The owners were all pretty good friends and they seemed to be enjoying it,” Powell explained his decision to become an owner. “I was enjoying coming out here and enjoying playing golf. At the time, it was affordable personally. Being real estate, I figured we would get our money out of it eventually.
“Half of the members were Shriners, and I was a Shriner. The friendship deal was an extentions of Shrine Club camaraderie.”
Absher eventually stepped aside; Powell intensified his commitment and brought in head golf professional Gary Hobgood as a part-owner in 2000.
The crash of the economy in 2008 didn’t help and Happy Valley revenue and membership steadily declined.
By then, theories stirred that the Wilson community could not support four golf courses and that either Happy Valley or Willow Springs Country Club was destined to go under. In the meantime, Wedgewood Public Golf Course’s appeal escalated.
“A private course can’t compete with them,” Powell contended. “And, nationwide, less people are playing golf.”
The 70-year-old Powell, a native of the Elm City area, remembers playing golf with Buzz Aycock and Jim Lanier and joining Happy Valley in 1971.
Married to the former Peggy Lee, Powell is a graduate of Elm City High School and graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in electrical engineering in 1969.
After a stint with Watson Electric, Powell and H.M. Barnes formed Barnes-Powell Electric in 1978. Barnes was electrocuted in 1986 and Powell, assisted by his son, James Powell, headed the firm until it ceased operation in August, 2017.
Powell entered retirement and discovered he needed to curtail the financial losses that came with the operation of the golf course.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve had sizable losses and, in retirement, I couldn’t continue to justify that,” Powell explained. “We were hoping to find an ownership group, but that didn’t work out.
“In the early 1990s, we had over 300 members and that was the only time we had a positive cash flow. We have been declining basically ever since. We had only about 125 members when I said we were shutting down.”
That announcement came in early March. Next, the Men’s Golf Association disbanded in May. Hobgood, head professional for 29 years, departed in mid-July for a similar position in Edenton.
Powell agreed to honor members’ request to keep the course open through the summer. But when the golf association shut down in May, the membership exodus intensified.
“I felt less badly about shutting down,” Powell noted. “It was wise not to keep investing money. But I was disappointed that, after I agreed to keep the course open through the summer, that a lot of the members started leaving.”
Powell reflected on “good friends, good times,” adding: “Everything but financially I thoroughly enjoyed. I spent a lot more money than I ever thought I would.
“I have enjoyed the last 18 years. I just pulled the plug too late: I could have saved a lot of money.”
Daryl Langston, the golf course superintendent for the last 30-plus years, mowed the fairways for the final time Friday.
“I didn’t want to see it happen,” Langston remarked of the shutdown, “but I didn’t see any way it couldn’t happen.”
“It’s a shame,” expressed member John Owens, who manned the pro shop the final days.
Tomlinson, a former owner, supported the decision of Powell, his close friend.
“I know what a drag it has been on him the last few years,” he commented. “But I have been sad since I first heard the news.”
Happy Valley was the only home for the immensely popular Cragmont Tournament for its 38-year run, and Cragmont founder and tournament director Rick Watson, a Happy Valley remember, declared: “(Powell) is owed a debt of gratitude for doing it as long as he did.”
Doors and the course closed late Saturday afternoon with Powell joining buddies Tomlinson, Ray Bass and Donald Bass for nine holes of superball golf. They bragged about shooting 6-under.
Powell just hopes Happy Valley’s intended perception remains intact.
He momentarily abandoned his usual rigid demeanor with a grin, and said: “I wanted it to be a place where the common man could come out and have a good time. That’s why it’s Happy Valley.”