ELYRIA — Bob Corna knows his word doesn’t carry much weight with some people.
In the seven years the seasoned developer has owned the former Spring Valley Golf Club, he has presented to city officials and community members so many reiterations of rebirth for the recreational course that this summer’s movement — spotted by anyone who has driven along Gulf Road — was not met with excitement.
“People would say to me, ‘What are you doing moving all that dirt around?’ ‘Why would you tear up this nice golf course?’” he said. “I had to quickly develop some thick skin and scale back my ego because I know what I have said before. But this time is different. I have my financing. I have a plan, and we are doing this.”
Corna announced Thursday a three-phase redevelopment plan for the golf course that will include an 18-hole PGA championship course spread over 145 acres, two restaurants, banquet facilities and upward of 200 homes.
The course will be renamed Valley of the Eagles, paying homage to the natural terrain and native bird species.
It is being designed by Nicklaus Design, the global golf course design firm founded by golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who has ties to the old Spring Valley Golf Club. The annual Lorain County Community College/ Jack Nicklaus Scholarship Golf Benefit was first played at the golf club.
Nicklaus Design referred all questions to Corna.
The first restaurant, a sports bar/tavern, is slated to open Nov. 21 on the lower level of the old clubhouse. It will feature indoor and outside patio seating as well as 12 large screens for state-of-the-art golf simulators that will allow players to traverse every Nicklaus golf course through virtual reality.
Corna said a well-known Cleveland restaurateur is nearly ready to sign on as the restaurant’s operator, but he isn’t ready to name names.
The next phase will be a renovated upstairs restaurant and banquet/conference facility, Corna said. The restaurant will be more geared toward families and overlook the golf course. It will open next spring.
The golf course, likely the most anticipated piece of the project, will be completed in August 2015 and open to the public in spring 2016.
Single-family homes — some 200 valued about $250,000 each — will be built in phases in a 25- to 30-acre development in the surrounding hills above the golf course. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom homes all will have views of the golf course and will be marketed toward retirees and empty-nesters looking to downsize, Corna said.
The entire Spring Valley property is more than 200 acres.
Heard it all before
A new golf course and new houses: Elyrians well-versed in the history of the golf course, especially under the ownership of Corna, have heard this idea before.
In July 2008, Corna was all smiles when he unveiled a $50 million project touting the high life of living on a golf course. That project was supposed to include 300 homes and at least one assisted living facility. The city’s Planning Commission wouldn’t sign off on permits because of a lack of tangible project details.
In October 2009, Corna pushed an assisted living facility-only project.
Once again, it never got off the ground. He wanted cluster homes in 2010 and 2012, never wavering from claims that a project was in the future.
As such, there is skepticism surrounding this latest announcement.
“I doubt it,” said Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, when asked if he thought this project would happen. “I’ve talked to Bob Corna so many times and he says a lot, but then we get nothing.”
Craig, who lives a short distance from the golf course, said he has fielded many phone calls over the years from residents and former players of the old Spring Valley that are heartbroken to see the course in its current condition.
Still, he has placed an announcement on his ward website so residents can know what he knows.
“He says two restaurants, a new golf course and homes are coming, and we will see if that happens,” Craig said.
Corna said he knows he has put himself in the category of seeing-is-believing.
It was a struggle just to get to this point. When the economy tanked, his dreams of golf course grandeur went with it. He kept the golf course open for a time by deeply discounting the price of a round of golf, and eventually closed it.
Corna also has faced numerous lawsuits over the years in both Lorain County Common Pleas Court and Elyria Municipal Court from people who said they did work for him and were never paid, as well as disgruntled brides who hoped to hold weddings at the clubhouse.
Corna’s attorney, Eric Zagrans, said many of the lawsuits have long been settled and a handful are being resolved. He doesn’t dismiss the financial hardships of his client’s past.
“He was hanging on until he got financing for this deal,” he said. “He intends to do what he can to resolve the few remaining cases that have not been resolved.”
Corna said he never intended to misrepresent what he could deliver to anyone.
“At one point, there wasn’t a bank in the country to lend money on a golf course,” he said.
Corna said this project is financed through Ohio supporters as well as strong international backers.
“I’ve got my financing. I’m moving dirt every day as a step forward,” he said. “We’re opening. I am going to have something for my sons to be proud of again.”
Corna said the course was last used more than a year ago. He played the last round with one of his sons, but that was long after the course lost its beauty and weeds began taking root.
From a city standpoint, Corna is making decent headway toward meeting his deadlines.
A new entrance and bridge over the Black River are near completion and will comply with a request from the Elyria Fire Department to improve access to the property.
City Engineer Tim Ujvari, who has walked the site numerous times, said Corna is coming into compliance with state and federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to manage stormwater runoff as well as address flood plan issues.
“He’s moving forward, doing what we want to see done, and he is not going to get a stop-work order from us,” Ujvari said. “I understand at one time it was a pristine golf course, so a lot of people are interested in what happens there.”
Golf is waning
It is unknown how the Valley of the Eagles will fit into the nationwide, billion-dollar golf industry or whether Corna’s revitalization plans can bring back the prestige the course once held.
He is facing not just pressures locally to return the former jewel to splendor, but he is also getting squeezed in an industry that has fewer players and even fewer places for those remaining to play.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg looked at the industry — citing a report from the National Golf Foundation — and reported how the sport has seen better times. In its study, the foundation surveyed more than 1,000 public golf courses nationwide.
The statistics paint a grim picture.
About 400,000 players left the sport in 2013.
Only 14 new courses were built in the U.S. last year, while more than 150 closed. It also marked the eighth consecutive year that more courses closed than opened, according to the foundation.
Golfers played fewer rounds as well. Last year, the fewest number of rounds were played since 1995.
Corna said the golf market of the future will be tight, but he anticipates there will be plenty of players willing to pay $20 or more for a round of golf but not ready to spend $1,000 a month at a private country club.
The Valley of the Eagles will fill that niche, he said.
“I know it’s hard to identify how great a golf course it will be until it’s done,” he said. “But this one will be a spectacular course. This will be something special.”