Building a neighborhood for homes costing up to $600,000 was the furthest thing from Thomas' mind when he opened the Deer Track Golf Course on Tonkel Road just south of the DeKalb County line in 1989. At the time, the 161-acre tract was miles from anything, and golf was growing in popularity. Today, with the new Parkview Regional Medical Center on Dupont Road spurring growth and golf in decline, the conditions have reversed.
And, as a result, so has Thomas' thinking.
In what he believes is the first such conversion in the area, nine of Deer Track's holes have been replaced with streets providing access to 61 lots, many of which have direct access to the remaining half of the course. But this is not a residential-gold development in the usual sense: There is no guarantee the rest of the holes won't eventually be turned into lots any more than there was a guarantee the entire course would remain undeveloped – a complaint lodged by some nearby residents before the county Plan Commission approved Thomas' “Deer Hollow” project late last year.
Rather, this is an example of Thomas doing what successful developers have always done: anticipate and respond to the ever-shifting demands of the market.
And where golf is concerned, that market is below par. Or should that be over par?
According to BleacherReport.com, the number of Americans playing at least eight rounds of golf per year has fallen between 3 and 4.5 percent annually since 2006, with the number of courses being closed now outnumbering those being developed. At the Fort Wayne Parks Department's three courses, golf revenues have declined from $752,000 in 2009 to $648,000 last year, and that trend applied to Deer Track as well, which experienced a decline in use every year since 2000.
“People don't have five hours to play golf (anymore),” Thomas said, noting that Americans' increasingly hectic lifestyles have actually made the nine holes that remain at Deer Track more desirable. And for now, at least, those holes make Deer Hollow more desirable as well, giving it the look and feel of one of those high-end subdivisions integrated into an equally high-end golf course. Ponds that once served as hazards for wayward drives now double as reflecting ponds for homes yet to be built.
“It's like a little bit of Florida,” said Thomas, noting that it will be legal to drive golf carts on Deer Hollow's streets.
With growth moving south from Auburn and north from Parkview, Thomas believes the development is well positioned not only to benefit from that growth but to help it continue by extending sewer lines north from Fort Wayne to the DeKalb-Allen county line.
Such development will not please everyone, of course. Prior to a public hearing last year, a nearby resident objected to the project, writing in a letter to the Plan Commission that when she bought her house from Thomas' company, “it was with the understanding that I was getting a 'luxury' home on a 'premier golf course.' I did not purchase this home with the expectation that the same organization that originally sold me the property would screw the current home owners by destroying the very golf course that was the key selling point.”
But Thomas said he never made any such representation and, presumably, any legal contract to that effect could have been enforced to prevent the development of Deer Hollow. And so while I may sympathize with that homeowner's concern over changes she did not anticipate, I can't fault Thomas for wanting to turn a negative into a positive. If he's right, Deer Track won't be the last underperforming golf course in Allen County to be redeveloped in the coming years.
Change is not always painless, but it is sometimes necessary. What happens to a golf course isn't overly important in itself, but in a larger sense what Thomas is doing symbolizes the kind of forward-thinking resourcefulness America still needs, but too often discourages to its own detriment..