The transformation is complete, with only a few minor details left in what has been a whirlwind $279,000 renovation of East Mississippi Community College’s latest crown jewel — Lion Hills Golf Club, formerly Columbus Country Club.
The college acquired the cash-strapped property in October for $1.6 million after it was sold at auction in the United States Bankruptcy Court in Aberdeen following two years of plummeting membership and escalating costs.
The clubhouse will be used for EMCC’s hotel and restaurant management technology and culinary arts programs, and the new recreational and golf turf management technology program will have classrooms and offices adjacent to the grounds-keeping maintenance facility .
Students will not arrive on the new campus until August, but things are already busy, said Debby Gard, vice president for business operations at the Lion Hills.
Renovations began in mid-March, with an April 25 deadline, and the project was completed on schedule she said.
The biggest change is in the ballroom. The walls have been covered in 36-inch panels of cypress wainscoting. The plain ceiling has also been coffered with cypress, and chandeliers have been added to make the surroundings more elegant. The carpet has been replaced with a rust, green and gold motif, and the valances are now covered in gold fabric.
Much of the design was left to Gard, who entrusted local architect Chris Marrow of Pryor & Marrow Architects with putting her vision on paper. Ricky Hill, superintendent of Conn Construction, and Richard Ferguson, of Associated Architectural Products, handled the construction and mill work.
“That room was just a giant, cold room,” Gard said Friday of the ballroom. “My whole intent was to warm it up and make you want to sit there and eat and have a good time. It’s really beautiful.”
The ballroom, which consists of two rooms — the Mississippi and Columbus rooms — is divided by a sliding partition. The entire space seats 200 and rents for $600. The Mississippi Room rents for $400 and holds 125 people and the Columbus Room rents for $300 and has a capacity of 75. An automated projection screen has been added, and the sound system has been upgraded.
The facilities are booked nearly every weekend between now and Christmas, with only four weekends still open, Gard said. Sarah Labensky is overseeing food services for Lion Hills, working with five cooks and 10 part-time wait staff.
One of the main goals of the college has been to make Lion Hills a bigger part of the community, and people have enthusiastically embraced that, Gard said.
She had intended to advertise their Mother’s Day brunch last Sunday, but when she had received 128 reservations by Wednesday, she didn’t bother. Word of mouth had made filling the space easier than expected, with approximately 216 people turning out for the event.
Lion Hills will offer Sunday brunch in the ballroom from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., beginning June 2. Friday night dinner will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. A lunch buffet will also be open to the public.
And they are opening up the golf course, selling memberships as well as accepting one-time green fees.
“We wanted to make it where the average person could belong,” Gard said. “We’ve got family reunions planned, awards ceremonies. People who have never been able to use this facility are using it.”
But the point of it all, she emphasized, is the students and the education they will be able to receive there.
Approximately 60 students will arrive on the new campus this fall, with around 35 signing up for the one-year certificate culinary arts program and two-year associate degree hotel and restaurant management program. The new, state board-approved recreational and golf turf management program will serve around 25 students.
“This entire thing is in support of our instructional programs,” Gard said. “It’s a win-win situation for us and the community.”
And so far, things are going smoothly, she said, adding that the Mother’s Day brunch went off “without a hitch.”
“The food was wonderful,” Gard said. “It was a great day. We worked our rears off, but when you’re able to see that it works — it’s just been such an accomplishment to get it going this quickly.”
The Lion Hills campus is an extension of EMCC, which currently serves 5,000 students at two main campuses, Scooba and Mayhew, and four branch campuses. School officials said moving some programs to Lion Hills will ease overcrowding at the Golden Triangle campus, which has around 4,000 students. Between 1994 and 2000, enrollment increased 212 percent.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.