By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – For the past 12 months Pinewood Country Club looked like the loser in the final minutes of a landslide loss on election day. It was only a matter of time before the defeat was official.
The 54-year-old Slidell golf and country club hit on hard financial times after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has struggled to survive since then. With a possible bank foreclosure of an $840,000 loan looming the past year, there was almost unanimous agreement that Pinewood Country Club would see the end of its days when golfers played the 18-hole course in the piney woods of Slidell.
Then along came Louis Ochoa and Chris Smith to the rescue.
At a Pinewood Board of Directors meeting over a week ago it seemed that the city of Slidell was set to purchase the club and turn the 96-acre property into a massive drainage project that would provide a positive end for the club, albeit without golfers slamming a little white ball off the tee boxes.
Instead, Smith made an offer to purchase the course and wipe out the bank loan, while Ochoa offered to purchase nearly seven acres of land where he has operated the clubhouse, restaurant and lounge for the past two years in a lease agreement that by all accounts had saved the club a little longer.
The deal totaled approximately $1.2 million and Pinewood shareholders were suddenly downcast no more as they overwhelmingly accepted the offer which has, at least for the foreseeable future, given the historic golf course and club new life.
Smith, a Shell Oil retiree who played golf at Pinewood in his high school days, made a decision to use his own retirement funds for the golf course purchase in an attempt to revive the club that he said is an integral part of the Slidell community.
Ochoa, who began as a small businessman in Slidell in 2012 when he opened NOLA Southern Grill on Gause Boulevard, now has plans for a massive remodeling and renovation project that will also include an entirely new 6,500 square foot events facility next to the spot that is now the 10th tee.
Ochoa, who has proven his entrepreneurial skills in business with nearly 40 rental properties to go with his restaurant and catering business, was able to use those assets as collateral for what he said will be an investment of over $1 million in Pinewood.
“A large portion of my restaurant business is catering and special events and the opportunity to lease the space here at Pinewood the past two years showed me this can be successful,” Ochoa said. “But we do need to put a new look on the place and that’s what I plan to do.”
Ochoa said he will remodel the front of the main building to create a new image for Pinewood, and while he has already done a lot of improvements on the inside—particularly gutting the lounge area and creating a fresh new atmosphere there—he said the work has just begun. He plans to redo the bathrooms in the main building, paint the entire place and “modernize the entire inside.”
Additionally, the pool area will get a new look as he plans to build an outdoor ceremony setting to the side of the pool that is now a grassy area. Phase II at the pool will be to build an outdoor, exposed beam area as well.
The biggest change at Pinewood will be the Sadie Jane events center, creating a 6,500 square foot “Rustic Barn” look that Ochoa said the Slidell area does not have.
“The Rustic Barn look is kind of the new thing. I’ve researched wedding facilities and events centers for the past two years and I think people will love what they call this Rustic Barn look,” he said, adding that the name of Sadie Jane comes from his daughter’s name.
Sadie Jane will accommodate up to 300 people and can handle up to three parties at once.
“It will have that rustic look, but will positively be an elegant venue,” he added.
Ochoa, 44, spent the early part of his professional career learning the restaurant business when he worked at Copeland’s, both as a chef and handling managerial responsibilities. He opened NOLA Southern Grill in May, 2012 as his first personal venture into the restaurant business and has been successful there, particularly creating a strong catering business. However, he said his growth made it apparent he needed a venue of his own.
With Pinewood struggling financially in recent years, particularly in their ballroom, restaurant and lounge business, the club made what turned out to be a critical move by leasing the area to Ochoa.
Smith called Ochoa “the savior for Pinewood since he came in two years ago. He turned that business around and it kept the club alive the past two years.”
Ochoa was originally approached to lease the Pinewood facility for $13,000 a month, but said that was too high before he settled on $6,000 a month.
“It’s not just the $6,000 a month to lease the kitchen and facilities, but utilities have been averaging about $3,600 a month,” he added.
A fundraiser hosted at the club shortly after he took over raised enough money to improve the ballroom and restaurant/lounge area.
“I knew coming here that this was a gamble, but I had been looking for a catering facility and this seemed like the best thing I could find,” he explained. “Now two years later we have made it work.”
He said that sales improved by approximately 20 percent, showing him that he could do even better if he owned the facility—the key facts that led him to seek a deal with the city or anyone who would buy the golf course property.
“I would have been OK if the city bought the course and I was able to buy this portion of Pinewood, but it’s better that Chris did it since the golf course certainly adds more value to what I will have here. Besides, brides don’t exactly want to know they are getting married next to a retention pond,” he said with a laugh.
Ochoa and Smith said they are hoping to be able to close on the golf course and property within 90 days, then Ochoa said he will begin improvements to the existing buildings, and start construction of Sadie Jane, which he expects to have ready for wedding season by next spring.
“I really believe Sadie Jane will be such a great facility that we will draw customers from the entire region, including the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. It will be a unique place to have a big party, wedding or special event,” he said.
Smith has similar plans for the golf course, initially putting money into improving the greens, then working on the rest of the course—maintenance work that has struggled with lack of funds in recent years.
Current Club Pro Ted Elliott will stay on board and is part of a deal to operate the clubhouse.
As longtime General Manager Terri Haithcox is telling everyone, “we are open for business.”