Wilmington’s Ironclad Brewery saves old Belvedere golf course in Hampstead from development

Storm clouds pass the seventh green on the old Belvedere Country Club golf course, recently purchased by Wilmington’s Ironclad Brewery after it closed down earlier this year. Click to expand the picture and view the gallery. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

HAMPSTEAD — When news of an impending sale of the old Belvedere Country Club circulated around Hampstead last winter, many surrounding residents braced for the expected: a developer would buy the land, many believed, and replace old fairways and putting greens with home lots.

They had reasons to be nervous. Neighbors of the Echo Farms golf course on the Cape Fear River in southern Wilmington filed a lawsuit against Matrix Development in late 2016, only to see the land bulldozed to build townhomes. And when Topsail Greens in Hampstead closed in 2013, a developer purchased the course the following year; now homes sit on once-open fairways.

No one expected a brewery to save Belvedere.

RELATED: National developer proposes 81-home Hampstead Commons subdivision

On Wednesday, Brandon Noel was working in a small, cluttered office on the second story of the clubhouse as a construction crew threw shingles and tar paper into dumpsters from the roof. Noel had recently sold two tech start-ups. One, called BarMembership, involved software he created for bars and nightclubs as a more efficient system for patrons to adhere to North Carolina’s antiquated bar membership law. He said it reached 300 clients and roughly 1.7 million members before bars shut down across the state in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Noel took his money and invested it in Ironclad Brewery in Wilmington, known for its event-oriented business model and owned by Ted Coughlin, an angel investor for one of his start-ups as well as a BarMembership client. Soon after he came on board, they found the old golf course for sale after a previous deal had fallen through, according to Noel. Coughlin wanted to expand the brewery’s brand while diversifying income streams and services offered, especially after the pandemic had devastated the wedding and event industry while providing a huge boost for golf courses.

“The golf industry as a whole has seen a tremendous uptick,” Noel said, noting the brewery’s wedding venue business has sharply declined.

[Editor’s note: On Thursday afternoon, after the original publication of this article, Pender County Planning Director Travis Henley responded to rumors that developers were interested in purchasing the land but couldn’t get past certain zoning hurdles.]

“I heard the same rumors everyone else was hearing in regards to potential buyers for the property, but we were never involved in any of those discussions,” Henley said. “No applications for development were ever submitted to our office.”

He said the Pender 2.0 Comprehensive Land Use Plan designates the property as a Recreation future land use category, intended to preserve future public and private parks, golf courses, boat launches, and passive open space for use by future generations.

“In order to protect property values and enhance quality of life, these lands should be protected from future development,” according to the land use plan.

Henley said his office was “excited to work with Ironclad in the coming months and to see increased opportunities for recreation and entertainment in the Hampstead area.”

‘We don’t do bougie; we do fun.’

A construction crew removes the underlying tar paper on the clubhouse roof before installing new shingles. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A construction crew removes the underlying tar paper on the clubhouse roof before installing new shingles. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

This will be no traditional golf course. First, Noel and three other owners will rename Belvedere Country Club to Ironclad Golf and Beer Garden. A beer shack will sit next to the driving range pumping out tunes and fresh drafts of craft beer from the brewery in Wilmington, Noel said before driving the front nine in a John Deere Gator on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re a brewery that owns a golf course,” Noel said. “So we’re billing it as ‘fun golf.’ One of the reasons we’re changing the name. We’re not going to be a country club. We don’t do bougie; we do fun. Fun golf, great beer. Keep a scorecard, don’t keep one — it’s up to you. The point is to have fun.”

Noel said they plan to open the driving range on a part-time basis sometime next week, while aiming to open the beer garden — which will replace an old pool that hasn’t been used since about 2012, according to Noel — and the front nine by October. As part of this phased approach, the back nine is expected to open by next spring or early summer.

The course layout is also unique: no fairway passes another, as is typical for many courses, because of its figure-eight layout that winds its way from about 300 feet from Highway 17 to the Intracoastal Waterway.

Saving the course

Brandon Noel, vice president of Ironclad Brewery. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The golf course shut down in late February or early March, Noel said, after the course had experienced a slow decline in recent years.

On top of their desire to expand the brand, the brewery owners were encouraged to buy the property after noticing widespread support from residents living along the fairways to preserve the golf course. When Dave Bullard, the superintendent, kept cutting the grass after the course closed, neighbors began following suit with their own mowers, according to Noel.

“He’d just come out here and cut the grass, all on his own. He didn’t want to see it go downhill … The neighbors then formed a little network: One homeowner said, ‘I’ll cut from the fourth fairway to the fourth hole, if you cut from the fourth hole to the fifth fairway.’ And they all kind of divvied it up among themselves,” Noel said.

Since the sale, Noel said property owners have walked up to him thanking them for buying the course. Many had told him stories of how their kids learned to play golf on the old course, he said.

According to Bullard, who was kept on staff as the course superintendent, one man who lives in the community would often play with his grandson, current PGA Tour golfer Jordan Spieth (who has 11 career PGA tour wins, three major championships, and $41.2 million career earnings.) He said Spieth once shot a 62 on the course.

Driving down the seventh hole, Noel was approached by Wayne Beck, a neighbor who was walking along the course’s cart path, asking him for an update on the course’s progress.

“Just walking around here now — this place has come a long ways. It was a mess, just a mess,” he repeated.

Next to the eighth fairway, local realtor Steve Crager was mowing his lawn.

“It’s exciting,” Crager said. “You go through the gamut of emotions when you hear that it’s closing. You get nervous and ask, ‘What if?’ A couple months later you find out it’s getting bought. You get excited but still a little nervous. You ask, ‘What are they going to do with it? Is it going to become a development?’ Then you find out Ironclad’s coming in and the golf course is coming back to life and they’re going to keep a lot of the same people on staff. Everybody’s thrilled, they really are.”

He said the purchase has also brought the neighborhood “back to life.”

“It went from people being nervous to buy here to people excited to buy. The houses are selling again. People are asking about lots in here to build custom [homes]. Values are going up,” he explained.

And it’s good for the Hampstead area, he said, which has seen too many “big box builder communities” taking up scarce land. With a growing, diversifying population, he is excited the unincorporated community will now have another entertainment option while preserving the great view he enjoys from his home.

“To sit on my front porch and look down hole eight, and talk to the guys as they’re teeing off on hole nine, it’s enjoyable,” he said.

An extension of the Ironclad brand

Ironclad Brewery on Second Street in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

From a business standpoint, Noel said it has become increasingly difficult in recent years for golf courses to survive on golf revenue alone, due to the enormous maintenance costs required for course upkeep. So they will look to bring Ironclad’s event venue services to the course, renting out the beer garden (while keeping a portion open to normal customers) and the clubhouse for small events.

Someday, he also hopes to build a larger event space for weddings and corporate events.

While the nearby Eagle Point and Olde Point courses appeal more to the serious golfer, according to Noel, the Ironclad Golf and Beer Garden will appeal more to the “working golfers” — those who just want to have some fun after getting off work — along with tourists.

Although he’s still playing with the numbers, in terms of rates, he aims to offer ‘season passes’ instead of traditional memberships. The brewery’s owners are even considering a 6-hole offering for those who don’t have time for nine or 18 holes, something you can squeeze in after work, he said.

They also plan to open a restaurant in the spring and the clubhouse to small events (up to 75 people) by early summer.

Their goals are ambitious. On top of planning for a larger event space for weddings and other events, they’re also exploring the idea of opening a distillery, he said.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s going to take a long time,” Noel said. “It’s gonna take several years to get everything completely up and going.”

This article has been updated with Pender County Planning Director Travis Henley’s comments. View more pictures of the future Ironclad Golf and Beer Garden below:

The fifth hole putting green lies close to the Intracoastal Waterway with the Topsail Beach water tower seen in the distance. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Geese look out at a pond from the eighth hole tee box. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A framed painting of the eighth hole in the club house. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A bathroom near the sixth hole putting green, near Lakeview Drive. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The sixth hole fairway. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A car drives down Fairway Drive, between the eighth and ninth holes. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Wayne Beck, who lives in the area near Highway 17, walks along the cart path on the front nine holes of the course. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Send tips and comments to the reporter at mark@localdailymedia.com

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