I recently had the honor of interviewing Blake Roberts, general manager of the Clubs of Kingwood. Roberts took the job just five days before Hurricane Harvey and has led the Clubs’ remarkable comeback. From golf courses buried under as much as eight feet of sand to the clubhouse that took on six feet of water, Roberts and his team resurrected an operation that many would have written off. They turned it into a shining centerpiece and selling point for the entire Kingwood community…even as they fed members whose homes had been destroyed.
Rehak: When you combine Deerwood and Kingwood, this must rank as one of the larger clubs in the country. Is it in the Top 10?
Roberts: It’s actually #5 now.
Rehak: What happened during Harvey?
Roberts: We ended up with almost 18 feet of water across the entire golf course. We also had sand. Some areas had just a few inches but others had up to eight feet.
Buried in Sand
Roberts: The big issue we had was, “What do you do with all the sand?” And, “How do you turn it back into a golf course and make it better than ever. We have a phenomenal maintenance group. They redid three out of the five holes near the river that had the most silt on them. They re-contoured them to actually use the silt and sand dumped by Harvey.
Rehak: You couldn’t just push it back into the river.
Roberts: Correct. We spread it out over other parts of the golf course and used that as padding for the soil that was already out there. We came in with backhoes and started moving the dirt and trying to smooth it all out. Then we put sod right back over the top of it.
Downed trees, of course, made some of the bigger differences. When people play the courses today, they say, “I don’t remember this hole being this way.” That’s because you used to have a tree here and a tree there. But that was part of the contouring that went along with it to make it flow and drain for playing golf again.
One of the biggest concerns for the members was our eagles’ nests. We’re happy to say they’re safe and sound and we have a huge Facebook following of the baby eagles that hatched this year!
18 Feet of Water On Courses, 6 in Clubhouse
Rehak: You said you had 18 feet of water on the course. How much was in the clubhouse?
Roberts: Almost six feet.
Rehak: What did reconstruction entail?
Roberts: We took out everything. Took out ceiling tiles. We took out all the way up because the mold started growing so quickly. We took everything down to the studs and bricks, and tossed out anything that could hold moisture.
Rehak: You lost some other facilities here, too. Tell me about those.
Roberts: We lost the fitness center. That ended up with about twenty eight inches of water in it. Of course the pools and everything else. We lost all of our pump houses. We lost our maintenance building. We lost the Forest Course which has the Golf Advantage School and the driving range.
Deerwood Completely Updated
Rehak: And what about Deerwood?
Roberts: We lost the Deerwood Club House and maintenance building. Deerwood ended up with about 34 inches. The water wicked up through the walls. With the building being a little bit older and not having as many updates, we went back in and changed it completely.
Roberts: It now has a restaurant where their golf shop used to be. And then we redid the men’s locker room. We redid the dining area. We put in a new bar area, new wet areas, new showers, new everything. Members tell me it’s the best thing that we could have ever done.
Improvements to Other Facilities at Kingwood
Rehak: What about your Lazy River and pool at the Kingwood Club? How did those fare in the flood?
Roberts: Not well. All of the equipment – from the umbrellas to the chairs to the tables – was pushed around in the flood. They damaged the interior of the pools. So we drained all the water, completely power washed everything, re- plastered and started all over from the very beginning.
We even rebuilt all the cabanas because the cabanas had metal poles. There was a concern that if they sat in water with level four contaminants and you didn’t get everything, what happens when somebody touches it and then touches food?
We had the same concerns with fitness equipment. Some of it was above water, but we worried about microbial growth. So we took everything out. All the way down the concrete slab which they bleached the tar out of. Then we started over with brand new equipment.
Roberts: The Lakeside Terrace flooded all the way up to the roofline because of where it sits. So they took it all the way down to the studs and the glass walls. We power washed and bleached it. Just started all over again, replaced the roof, replaced the ceiling, replaced the insulation. It’s beautiful. More beautiful than it was before. Absolutely. Members actually dined out there for a little more than a year. Our “kitchen” was a 38-foot trailer for 15 months.
Giving Back to Community in Its Darkest Hour
Rehak: That raises an interesting question. How did you keep your staff focused through all this?
Roberts: The team actually bonded together, much like the community as a whole. We took more than 25,000 sandwiches and wraps to homeowners around the community right after Harvey. All of our clubs in the area sent food our way. We dispersed it throughout the entire community. That’s incredible. As soon as we could get a food truck here, we actually fed all of our members from the food truck. From the 8th of September all the way through the 8th of December. Every single day, members could come up and dine for free.
When the staff wasn’t working here, folks went into neighborhoods and helped random people moving stuff out of their homes or ripping sheetrock out. There were so many random acts of kindness!
Rehak: That’s quite amazing.
Roberts: And the employees all bound together. They had a plan. Our goal was to get these golf courses back and a dining space before the end of the year, which we accomplished. Golf courses finished up on December 26, with the last trucks of sand going into the bunkers. And we had the Lakeside Terrace for members to dine. And April 9th, 2018, we opened up the fitness center. And then the pools opened on Memorial Day weekend that year like they were always scheduled to do.
Membership Back Up But Still Room For Growth
Rehak: And how did the membership levels fare through all this. Did you take a hit?
Roberts: Oh yes. And we anticipated that would happen. We had more than 300 members whose homes flooded. So we allowed them to go to a “Hold” Category while they rebuilt their homes. They had plenty of time to complete fixes before coming back to full membership.
$50 Million Investment In Community
Roberts: How much did it cost to restore all this?
We’re over $50 million currently. That includes Deerwood and Kingwood Clubs. It also includes a large fleet of golf carts and maintenance equipment that nobody really ever thinks about. But those carts aren’t cheap and neither are those big tractors that mow.
Ironically, we had taken precautions with all that equipment before the flood. We moved everything to the parking lot because the parking lot had never flooded before.
Rehak: So fifty million dollars! That’s a huge commitment. Was that a hard sell to your corporate office?
Roberts: Not really. They came back and said, “You know what? This has always been the heart of Kingwood. This is the heart of the community and we want to get it back to being bigger and better than ever.”
Manager Started Job 5 Days Before Harvey…and Stayed
Rehak: You started this job not long before Hurricane Harvey.
Roberts: Five days. When I tell people that, everyone asks, “Why did you stay?” I saw it as an opportunity. Can you imagine putting this on your resume? A 50 million dollar rebuild project on top of managing 90 holes of golf, a fitness center, tennis and all the other.
Rehak: It’s gorgeous. It looks like you’ve completely redesigned the clubhouse.
Roberts: Not completely redesigned, but completely refreshed. We kept most of the walls in the same spots, but the ones that we needed to move, we did. The new board room is an example.
Rehak: What did you do and how did you make it different?
Roberts: Well, we had a storage room behind the board room. We removed that wall and gained six extra feet. So we were able to put a very large table in there and make it the boardroom that it always should have been.
“We’re Still Discovering Little Things”
With other changes like that, we soft-opened this building (Kingwood CC clubhouse) in February, 2019. And we’re still considering ourselves under soft opening because we’re still discovering things.
Rehak: For instance?
Roberts: Little things. You originally go into re-building thinking, “I have all this covered.” And then you’re like, “I don’t have all this.” For instance, I’m still waiting on my coffee credenza to where I have member coffee available all of the time. It’s just little things like that. We built the building back and we’re ninety-eight percent of the way…complete.
Rehak: Are you going to have an official grand reopening?
Official Grand Re-Opening Coming Soon
Roberts: We ARE. But there are three projects we’re still trying to complete. The member porte-cochère entrance by the golf shop, the back patio, and our private-event entrance. Then we will consider the rebuild complete.
Rehak: Would you call this the opportunity to rebuild the club your dreams? It really does look pretty spectacular here.
Roberts: Yes, we were able to put all the little things back together that we wished for over the years, but never were able to do.
Rehak: Do any stories from the flood or the recovery really stand out in your mind?
Roberts: 25,000+ sandwiches. Feeding members for months. Long days. Some of our crews did this by day. And by night, they were actually going to people’s houses and helping them rip out sheet rock and drywall and everything else. I was amazed to hear how many people were doing this and you know some of them are 50-60 years old.
Rehak: Is the membership level back up to where it was or it needs to be?
Roberts: We’re close. Very close to being back where we were before Harvey. But two other floods in 2015 and 2016 hurt us as well. So we still have room to grow.
Rehak: How are the courses? Are there spots you don’t want to hit your ball into?
Getting Even Better Every Single Day
Roberts: Not really. The best part about this was the golf courses getting that extra sand. I have people who have been members for 40 years saying, “This place is better than the day it was built.” It makes me smile knowing how far we’ve come.
Rehak: Did you have to replant the greens?
Roberts: All the greens survived except two. And we redid those with the three fairways. But if you didn’t know exactly where to look, you probably couldn’t tell.
Rehak: If you had one thing to tell potential new members right now, what would it be?
Roberts: We’re back and better than ever. And we’re getting even better every single day. If you haven’t seen us lately, you probably should take a look again. Because you know what? What people may remember is completely different now.
Posted by Bob Rehak on August 7, 2019
708 Days from Hurricane Harvey