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JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Johnny Counts never found the pot of gold he was looking for along the banks of the Snake River just south of Hoback Junction. The lifelong bachelor panned for gold in the area named for him (Johnny Counts Flat) near Astoria Springs, sluicing away 100 wheelbarrows of dirt a day for a penny’s worth of gold per load. A century later, a steel magnate with dreams of pay dirt also failed to strike it rich here. Only death could release Dick Edgcomb from the debt and derision he accrued during the 10 years he worked the land at the river’s bend.
The troubled Snake River Sporting Club has begun its next iteration. New ownership and management in place at the golf course-cum-sad sack story believe they can turn things around at the bend in the river that has collected a silt storm of problems in the past decade.
The club held an open house Saturday to show off the revamped 26,000-square-foot clubhouse, the nearly finished Martin Creek Cabins and the 7,765-square-foot Martin Estate, currently listed at the discount price of $800,000. The new management team was on hand to field questions and spread holiday cheer.
Longtime valley resident Jeff Heilbrun, recently named COO of the new Snake River Sporting Club, was flown in for the occasion. Heilbrun spent 18 years with Teton Pines, serving as the GM from 2005 to 2010 and returns after three years in North Carolina. He said he always knew he would be back in the valley. In fact, he never sold his house here. A friend of the investment group that purchased the club suggested Heilbrun would be a perfect fit to restore public confidence in a development awash in controversy.
Gone is developer Dick Edgcomb, who began the nightmare at the turn of the millennium with his dream of a world-class golf course and residential development. Edgcomb was quickly at loggerheads with environmentalists and river users for disturbing a pristine watershed with bunkers and tee boxes. By 2002, the uproar culminated in a popular bumper sticker reading: “Stop the Canyon Club: Jackson Hole needs more Eagles and fewer Dicks.”
It was clear: replacing birds with birdies wasn’t going to be easy. Digging was halted several times by nesting eagles and osprey, protected by court order. When the county enforced 150-foot setbacks, Edgcomb got jiggy with the identification of the river itself, renaming a braid of the Snake “Trout Creek,” and claiming he could build holes 2, 3 and 4 right on top of it since it was not technically the river, according to Planet JH and News & Guide news stories.
When Teton County proved to be a pain in his ass, Edgcomb also tried a backdoor deal, attempting to add a 144-acre parcel to the south of his original development that straddled the county line with Lincoln County. All through the mess, Edgcomb wasn’t paying his contractors. One by one they either quit working or sued him or both.
With both the Canyon Club and Snake River Canyon Ranch floundering in debt and lawsuits, Edgcomb bailed. He sold out to New York-based real estate developers Dolan, Pollak & Schram in 2005. When the market turned sour, even they couldn’t save the jinxed property. In 2008, DPS filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy with more than $91 million in debt and 456 creditors standing in line, according to a News & Guide story. Chapter 7 was upgraded to Chapter 11 in 2011, beginning the liquidating of assets process and forcing the county to cash in construction bonds and step in to keep the place from melting back into the riverbed.
Edgcomb’s death in 2011 accelerated an eventual deal to turn the golf course, 68 lots and unfinished 23,000-square-foot clubhouse property over to yet another real estate development firm. Before her death last summer, Edgcomb’s widow, Carolyn, was able to see a deal finalized with Cygnus Capital Real Estate Advisors. Another entity bought the adjoining ranch property. The Atlanta-based firm made immediate changes.
But we’ve heard it all before.
“We’re a friendly face for this place and we want energy,” Heilbrun said. “This place has been waiting for some positive things to happen and it’s happening. We’re excited. There’s been a lot of good response. Everything is moving forward.”
Heilbrun’s first order of business was to rescue the golf course. The 18-hole course designed by PGA legend Tom Weiskopf had fallen into disrepair over the years of disuse. Only the diligent efforts of course superintendent Gregg Ornowsky kept the course from completing disintegrating. He was Heilbrun’s first hire.
“Jenny Baker is our member services manager,” Heilbrun said. “We have a director of outdoor pursuits who oversees all the outside activities. His name is Will Hobbs. And Gregg Ornowsky will be our golf course superintendent. He and Will were here when it closed down, so we’ve brought back some of the old crew that know some of the members and know the lay of the land.”
All 18 greens were rebuilt. The sand-gravel layers were scooped out and replaced. Greens were reseeded last July and by August, crews were mowing them. The bunkers were also completely redone, and the fairways were airified and fertilized.
Heilbrun is confident the course will be playable by May. By summer the course will once again resemble what Weiskopf himself called his finest work to date in 2006 when it was finished. Kali Quick agreed.
Quick was named the club pro just this week. She is likely the first female head professional in the state of Wyoming. But breaking ground is nothing new to the 27-year-old. In 2010, she was named head pro at Lakeview in Meridian, Idaho – the first woman to hold a head pro gig in the Gem State. The former Kansas State star then moved to Shooting Star, where she was first assistant for the past three seasons.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Quick said. “I’m so excited and looking forward to this opportunity, especially considering I will get a chance to really grow with this course because we are both kind of new to each other. I am honored for the chance to put my mark on it. I’ve got everything in front of me.”
Quick said she had a chance to walk the front nine last fall and has talked to numerous people who have played the world-class course. “People say it’s phenomenal. I know it’s unique and it’s challenging. Just based on seeing it, I’m honored to get to play it, and I’m ready for it,” she said.
More than links
Assuming the financial mess is behind them, including the highly publicized foreclosure of a home purchased by former Atlanta Braves all-star pitcher John Smoltz, can Cygnus and company shake the bad blood and rebrand the club as something positive? Does Jackson Hole need yet another golf course for a sport enjoyed three to four months out of the year?
“Yeah, I get that question, and I get that argument. But it’s more than just that,” Heilbrun said. “It’s not just another golf course. Golf is an amenity. It’s also about the fact that we’ve got all these trails. We’ve got an equestrian center, and six miles of private fishing access, and boating, and 18 holes of Frisbee golf. It’s really cool. We’ve got a climbing wall with cardio and weight equipment on the way, available 24 hours for our members.”
Heilbrun added that members also would enjoy kayaking and canoeing on certain channels of the Snake and in a private pond. Equestrians will enjoy boarding and riding opportunities out of the nearby barn. A sporting clay and skeet shooting range will be added. Winter activities include a groomed Nordic track for cross-country and skate skiers, as well as a skating rink, sledding hill, and 25 lockers set aside for club members in the Crystal Springs Lodge at the Village.
Heilbrun also noted an emphasis on kid-oriented activities and programs.
“We’ve got a three-dimensional archery course where you go out on a trail where there are life-size deer and stuff like that,” Heilbrun said. “We’ve got paddle boards down at the pond, and we are putting in paddle tennis courts. An old storage room in the clubhouse has been repurposed into a game room for kids with a Ping-Pong table, Xbox, stuff like that. We will be as kid-friendly as can be with junior camps, junior golf programs. It will be a real Jackson Hole experience for the kids.”
Local, inside and out
Cygnus has stayed primarily local with contractors. Intermountain Construction Management Group is still hammering away on the luxurious cabins at Martin Creek and NYC-based interior designers, WRJ Design Associates that also has an office in Jackson, were hired to freshen the clubhouse.
WRJ co-principle Rush Jenkins said his main challenge was to create something “modernish” and inviting.
“It was our pleasure to have been involved in the rebirth of the Snake River Sporting Club,” Jenkins said. “Our role was to take the interiors and create an environment that would be appropriate for the region and comfortable for the members. We wanted to be current but also speak to the rustic mountain vernacular without being too rustic. We tried to be consistent with that classic lodge setting that has been pretty prevalent in the region for the past 20 years. But we also chose something more modern and lighter. Overall, we wanted to make people feel like they were walking into someone’s home versus walking into a lodge.”
Jenkins juxtaposed a more contemporary feel to the traditional Western look by using textures and lighter-colored fabrics. Belgian linens and wools, and Moroccan-style rugs were kept cream-colored or beige to help lighten the setting and “bring the space up to current form and make it fresh,” Jenkins said.
“Altamira [Fine Art] was very generous consigning all the artwork that is in the lodge,” Jenkins added.
One touch that seems a staple with any Western lodge is evident immediately: the obligatory taxidermy.
“Obviously, you think you are going to see taxidermy. You expect it in a Western lodge,” Jenkins said. “But with the traditional elk mount, there is a twist. We love this particular piece. We had originally designed it for Larry Hagman and it was part of the Larry Hagman estate. You can still read the insignia: ‘I was shot by JR.’”
New day dawning?
Cygnus has poured more than $11.5 million into the rededication of the 554-acre residential community property. Plans to push the real estate opportunities at the club will proceed slowly and with caution, according to REMAX Obsidian’s Chip Marvin.
“We’ve had quite a bit of interest in the three cabins under construction now,” Marvin said. “We have no further cabins planned as yet. We are taking a slow attitude toward the real estate end; trying not to rush the market with product.”
Marvin said Obsidian will also represent the older building sites at the extreme south end of the property that are not already privately owned. Lots along Wagon Road and Tall Timber Road are in varying states of livability, from partially built to abandoned.
Heilbrun said he and Cygnus have worked hard to rebuild lost faith with the community and improve the working relationship with county officials, which he said was very good right now.
Editor’s Note: The original release of this story misidentified the builders of the Martin Creek Cabins. The story should have credited the Intermountain Construction Management Group. The correction has been made in the text above. Planet JH regrets the error.