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Tracy and Russ Libby, owners of Hidden Hills Country Club.
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 11, 201712:00 PM EST

Hidden Hills golf course, clubhouse and dining amenities going public Feb. 1


Hidden Hills Country Club, developed 50 years ago in the Fort Caroline area, will cease to be a private country club and its golf course will become public Feb. 1.

Dining facilities and the clubhouse also will open to the public.

However, the tennis facility, pool, fitness center and club-sponsored events will no longer operate, owner-manager Russ Libby told members in a letter dated Jan. 3.

Memberships will end Jan. 31.

Libby said Tuesday there are demographic changes in and around Arlington. Also, people don’t seem to have extra money to spend on private country club memberships.

At the same time, there is interest in access to golf courses from nonmembers.

“We have seen a demand on the public side that has been pretty positive,” he said.

Libby and his wife, Tracy, own the club at 1301 Monument Road in East Arlington under the name Lucas Fairways LLC. Tracy Libby is director of sales.

Russ Libby said the decision to open to the public was pro-active.

His letter said it has been their desire to manage the club as a private facility.

“However we feel that this new business model is the best one for the future of Hidden Hills,” he said.

The decision was made after almost 14 years of serving members.

“There is emotion that is tied in with changes like this,” said Libby.

Lucas Fairways bought the club in March 2003 from Bank of America, which had taken title to it in 2002.

Lucas Fairways was associated with Lucas Honda at the time, but Russ Libby said it no longer has an involvement with the club.

Lucas Fairways owns about 165 acres of property, according to Duval County property records. Libby said the course is about 115 acres.

Libby said the membership averages about 450. “We don’t have as many as we used to. That really played in the decision,” he said.

Libby declined to provide the percentage breakdown of how many live in the adjacent Hidden Hills Country Club Estates gated residential community and how many live elsewhere. Membership was not restricted to the residential community’s residents.

Libby said the bulk of the club members live within five miles and over the years they have targeted prospective members within 10 miles.

In a news release Tuesday, Libby said starting Feb. 1, the dining facilities will be open to the public for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, with bar service until 7 p.m. The pub menu will be offered Friday until 9 p.m.

He said the club will continue hosting banquets, weddings, business meetings and private parties and hopes to continue working with area civic clubs that meet there.

Libby said in an interview that while the fine-dining restaurant will be closed, there will be a menu in the 19th hole area.

The release said Hidden Hills Country Club, founded in 1966, operated as a private country club for most of its years. From 1970-72, it hosted the Greater Jacksonville Open, the precursor for The Players Championship.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer redesigned the course in 1986.

Property records show the two-story, 40,000-square-foot clubhouse, including patios and storage, was built in 1966. Building records show ongoing property improvements.

The website for the adjacent Hidden Hills Country Club Estates gated residential community says most of the homes were built from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s.

The club opened to the public on a limited basis in August 2015.

Hidden Hills originally was a private club, Libby wrote in the letter, and then developed to be an exclusive community.

“It was designed to promote value, lifestyle, and exclusivity associated with living in a private Country Club community,” he wrote in the letter to members.

However, he wrote the Hidden Hills Estates community has continued to receive added value because of the club but the club has not experienced the same added value from the Hidden Hills Estates community.

The letter did not elaborate on that. Hidden Hill Estates homeowners association leadership could not be reached Tuesday.

In addition to daily public pricing, Hidden Hills is introducing an individual annual golf pass for $2,950 to include unlimited greens fees and golf cart fees for 2017. They will first be made available to current members who subscribe by Jan. 20.

HillsPass holders can make tee times up to eight days in advance. Only 200 passes will be available.

Depending on availability, the passes will be offered to the general public.

In the release, Libby said the Arnold Palmer Signature golf course will have tee times seven days a week for daily rates of $39 per player and weekend rates of $49 per player.

The practice facility — with a driving range, short game area and two putting greens — also will be open to the public at $5 per bag of balls, he said.

“We believe we can bring more players into the game of golf by offering affordable golf and creative programming, clinics, leagues and events which will be open to everyone,” Libby said in the release.

He said Tuesday the pool and tennis courts will be closing down and secured for safety, but he is considering options for them.

“It wouldn’t be good for anyone to have it sit there and deteriorate,” he said.

Fred Seely, president of the Jacksonville Area Golf Association, said Tuesday that Hidden Hill’s challenges are not out of the ordinary.

“The number of private clubs around the country is shrinking. Every private club is facing challenges and sometimes due to demographics or other outside factors, a club simply has to make the decision simply to go from Situation A to Situation B,” Seely said.

The association is an umbrella group for golf-related activities in clubs throughout the area. The association’s annual report says 38 clubs are members, including Hidden Hills.

Seely said the Hidden Hills course is a good value and provides more opportunities for people to play public courses.

“Hidden Hills was a private course and a great one. Now anybody can go out there and play, so it’s good for the consumer,” he said.

Seely said private club memberships are down for many reasons, including:

• A private club traditionally is a neighborhood club. “If you are moving to town and you choose to live where schools are much better in the next county, that would be a determining factor,” he said.

• A private club is more than a restaurant. It is expected to be open all the time with a full staff, “no matter who shows up.”

• The recession hit private clubs hard “and a lot of them either went under or went corporate,” he said. Some were bought by national club chains.

• Private clubs’ revenue is mostly initiation fees and dues, which means they need full members. “Hardly any private club makes money on food and beverages,” he said.

• Amenities like tennis courts and swimming pools are costly to maintain.

• It’s also expensive to maintain a golf course and its substantial acreage.

• An average 39 percent of people living in a gated community with a course belong to the private club, he said. “You would think it would be just packed in there, but it isn’t,” he said.

“It’s sad, but it’s the way of the world,” he said.

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