New owner of Hampstead country club is hoping to build a sense of community

PENDER COUNTY -- When fertilizer trucks pulled into the Olde Point Country Club near Hampstead recently, owner John Francesco said he had long-time regulars tell him that they had never witnessed such an event -- nor, within recent memory, seen such an obviously needed investment in the 18-hole, 6,900-yard semi-private course on Country Club Drive.

The rejuvenation of the greens and fairways shouldn’t have caught them off guard, though. Francesco had already renovated the restaurant and pro shop, given the pool a major facelift, and had patched and rehabbed the tennis courts since buying the facility from an absentee Kentucky owner.

The year since his purchase of Olde Point has been filled with long hours and hard work, Francesco said last week of the efforts he and Marzana Zalik have put in, but they appear to be paying off: More golfers are coming to play on a cleaned-up and reinvigorated layout and more are taking advantage of an onsite professional and his assistant and browsing in a pro shop that is now more than an afterthought. More diners also are discovering that the institutional feel of the old club restaurant has given way to quiet elegance and a frequently changing menu.

But Francesco said that, to him, there's something even more important than the increased foot traffic to his club -- local residents are discovering that there is a new and emerging community center in the unincorporated Pender town, a place where civic clubs can meet, where business and social groups can gather, a place where charitable organizations can boost their outreach efforts and their fundraising appeals.

Fixing the facility is nice, Francesco said. Building a new sense of community cohesion is more to his liking. Making some money would be nice, too, he added, but the successful former Philadelphia businessman who sold his largely self-made business and retired to Hampstead in 2013 would be just as happy with breaking even.

“We are trying to get people in here not because we are a restaurant or not because we are a country club, but because we have space, and we can better the community,” Francesco said.

'I thought I could fix this'

In Philadelphia, Francesco was not a restaurateur and identified as a “trunk-slammer” as a golfer, going from course to course on Saturdays with his clubs in his car, not housed in a plush country club locker room. Despite the lack of relevant experience, “I thought I could fix this,” he said of Olde Point.

The club – an “everyman’s country club,” Francesco dubs it -- offers about a half-dozen different membership packages that include golf, swimming and tennis in various configurations. Golf is open to the public on a daily-fee basis, as are the other amenities. The restaurant is patronized by members and non-members alike, and is characterized by Francesco as mid-priced, not “ritzy, which doesn’t work here,” he said. “People here don’t want…$50 steaks.

“We are just trying to be what this community should always have had,” Francesco said. “So I thought I’d just do it myself. I knew what I wanted. It might have been silly to try to fix something that had been broken for … 20 years, but I decided we’d put the work in, and if the community decided not to support us, that’s not going to be my fault. It won’t be because I didn’t try.”

Community building

But golf is a tough business to be in these days. Declining popularity among younger adults is hitting the industry hard. Wilmington’s Echo Farms Golf Course closed last fall, and rumors of other courses in the Cape Fear region turning fairways into homes or closing all together are rampant.

Francesco, however, doesn’t seem particularly worried -- despite first-year outlays that have outstripped first-year income.

“I didn’t come into this business necessarily to make money,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to make money. I bought it because I knew this is what I wanted to do. If we can make a sustainable restaurant, if we can have a decent golf course, if we can pay our bills … that’s our intention.”

That, and giving Hampstead residents -- including new young families -- a place to gather, to do business, to socialize, and be a place where community gets defined.

Francesco “acquired the Olde Point golf course and restaurant around a year ago and has made many positive changes both in the infrastructure and business approach,” club member Steve Donatone said. “The club now sponsors many tournaments that generate proceeds for various charities and animal-rescue organizations and is really giving back to the community.

“The members are quite happy with the progress,” he added. ‘The course is in excellent shape, and the restaurant is nicely run, with good food at reasonable prices.”

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