By DAVID DROSCHAK
It has been 13 years since the passing of real estate mogul Joseph Koury, but Mo Milani can rattle off stories about the early development of Grandover Resort on demand, offering vivid details of long walks the two shared, covering every piece of dirt, every plan, and every idea for the expansive Guilford County property.
“From 1980 on we came over here every Saturday morning, regardless of summer or winter, snow on the ground or 98 degrees, and this man kept talking about where he wanted stuff,” said Milani, now executive vice president of hospitality for the Koury Corp. “We even drove to places that weren’t ours at the time and talked about what he wanted on the land. Joe wanted something grand.”
Koury’s firm built more than 10,000 homes in Guilford County and he was the brains behind the high-rise Sheraton Hotel-Four Seasons, but the 1,500-acre Grandover Resort and surrounding community and upscale office space was his ultimate dream. A golf lover of the first degree, Koury’s vision included two premier public golf courses and a European-style castle resort hotel the entire Greensboro community could point to with pride.
Koury died in March 1998 during the construction phase of the hotel, but was able to enjoy the opening of the Grandover East Course in 1996 and the Grandover West Course in 1997.
“He never built anything outside of Guilford County because he wanted to look at it every day,” Milani said. “He always wanted things to be of quality. He didn’t sit there in his office; he had his jeans and golf shirt on riding on bulldozers and directing traffic.”
Milani still chuckles, recalling one story about Koury becoming impatient with workers laying sod, trying to hurry the laborious process along.
“We had 100 workers going at a time,” Milani said. “As they are laying the sod on the fairways we’re standing on the tee hitting balls, wanting to see where they landed. He was one of those guys who loved to play his golf.”
It’s still hard to believe such a plush resort calls Greensboro home. Enter the hotel through its circular front doors and the Old World setting of Italian travertine, gold limestone, black granite and Spanish marble reminds one of the finest New York or Las Vegas has to offer. Meanwhile, golfers are greeted at the pro shop entrance with a rotunda mural by artist Robert Dion that depicts Koury’s community vision.
“A lot of people stop and look at that,” said Grandover director of golf Jonathan York. “It’s certainly is eye-catching.”
The grandeur of the hotel is impressive, as is the year-round condition of the two golf courses designed by David Graham and Gary Panks, along with the value offered for each. Milani said many golfers in Guilford County still have a misconception that Grandover is a private club because of all of its high-end amenities.
“We have a hard time convincing people this is a public golf course,” Milani said. “When you walk in it can be intimidating because some other guys have a trailer or a manufactured home as a pro shop or clubhouse, and this automatically looks professional. Walk into this lobby, walk into this hotel and it’s quite an uplifting experience.
“Country clubs are going broke,” added Milani. “If somebody in Greensboro wants to become a member of a country club they have to pay initiation fees to get in, they have to pay monthly fees, and every time they do something to the golf course they’re going to send you an assessment. You can come to Grandover and you don’t have to pay a dime to get in, you pay as you go, you have a great restaurant here, you have great service and you don’t have to worry about rain or storm damage or an earthquake, we take care of it.”
The East Course is about 300 yards longer than the West Course and is often preferred by golfers with lower handicaps. The East Course ends with one of most visually stunning holes in North Carolina, a par-5 that opens up over the final 250 yards with a view of the grand hotel to the right and water on the left side for a perfect risk-reward golf offering.
“The lake was here originally, but we made three lakes out of it with some waterfalls to give it character,” York said. “It’s a beautiful setting for a finishing hole.”
The East Course also features a 100-yard 12th hole that either evokes pleasure or pain, followed by the par-5 13th hole with a creek crossing the fairway as the layout doglegs left to a tricky green.
“Yeah, the 13th hole is a very demanding hole,” York said. “The East Course is a shot-maker’s golf course. You’ve got to be very deliberate with your approaches into the greens and it’s a little more forgiving in the driving areas, but you need to find the putting surface. The green complexes are very vertical so if you miss the green you’ve got some work to do.”
The West Course is more tree-lined and not as forgiving off the tee, and begins to tease a golfer off the first tee with a downhill 300-yard hole with a green guarded by water.
The natural flow of each of the Piedmont courses isn’t by accident. Koury had numerous meetings with the architects to produce exactly what he envisioned as a true test of golf diversity.
“He always said, ‘Let’s not tear it apart. God created this land, let’s keep the integrity of the land as it is,”’ Milani said. “When you drive around this golf course you’ll realize we didn’t move that much dirt. Sure, the designers are Gary Panks and David Graham, but I promise you they didn’t draw one inch of this land on paper without Joe approving it because he wanted to make sure the integrity of the land stayed.”
Even a man as visionary as Koury couldn’t have predicted an economy that began tanking in late 2008, and Grandover has had to tinker with its pricing somewhat, offering even more value than previously advertised. Still, Milani said the resort hasn’t cut any of its services or the $1.8 million maintenance budget during these tight times.
“Actually, it wasn’t a bad thing to introduce people who may have never come; now they saw it and when they get some extra money they’ll pay $20 more because it was a good experience,” he said. “We never shortchanged the golf courses one dime or the landscape around the hotel. And from day one we’ve picked up the bags in the parking lot before the golfers get to the building. Service to us is the most important part of our business. If you don’t have service, you can have all the beautiful golf courses you want it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t shortchange people with service.”
Milani is seeing a return of some outside corporate business groups booking hotel rooms and golf course outings, and is banking on Grandover’s central local, convenience to Interstates 40 and 85, and competitive pricing to grab its share of the market place in 2011 and beyond.
“I really do think the economy in the surrounding states will grow a little bit faster than Guilford County because we’ve lost textile, manufacturing and furniture jobs,” Milani said. “What are we going to do in the meantime? We’re going to keep our head up and we’re going to stay the course as far as our service is concerned … and keep the integrity Mr. Koury envisioned.
“The premise of Grandover in a good economy – and one day that is going to come – is that our location is sitting dead center in the middle of the state. It is equal distance from Raleigh and Charlotte, and in the center of the East Coast of United States from New York to Miami, and the same distance from the mountains to the coast. You couldn’t have planned it any better if you tried. It’s just in the middle of everything with highways coming in every direction. I have no doubt that Grandover will be THE place that everybody will be talking about.”