The Cliffs Communities, under the official name Cliffs Club and Hospitality Group, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier today in Greenville, SC, its headquarters city. The filing is the latest event in a tumultuous couple of years at the upscale group of communities in the hills of the Carolinas that were founded by former telephone lineman Jim Anthony. Anthony’s rags to riches to bankruptcy story will serve for a long time as a cautionary tale for others considering a dip into the wild world of upscale golf community development.
The Cliffs empire has been built on a vision of upscale amenities, and lots of them. Six golf courses, an equestrian center, multiple wellness and fitness centers, nature trails, a mountaintop chapel, $1 million properties
The specific story of The Cliffs includes a few elements some of us will recall from our readings of classic Greek tragedy; a hero blind, until it was too late, to the roiling external influences on his kingdom, as well as to his own flaws. Former Cliffs employees have told me that Anthony, whose residents spoke of him in almost divine terms during the good times, often disdained the advice of his senior staff, and then “openly criticized and belittled them” in front of others. But fate, as well as over-weaning pride, also worked against The Cliffs founder, in the form of a collapsing economy and a young golf star who was supposed to make his mark in the world of golf course design courtesy of Jim Anthony.
To those of us -– and to some Cliffs residents -- who thought six golf courses, up to one hour’s drive from each other, were more than enough, the hiring of Tiger Woods to build a mountaintop golf course at High Carolina was a head scratcher, an unnecessary if daring attempt to take The Cliffs from its dominating position in the upscale golf community market
When I first visited three of The Cliffs Communities in 2006 with a friend, we marveled at the array and lushness of the amenities. The housing market was roaring back then, and our guide at The Cliffs proudly pointed to a McMansion on the golf course, owned by an Atlanta family, and said: “It’s their third house. They plan to use it a few weeks each summer.” Later, at dinner after our visit, I asked my friend, “How can that all be sustained?” “Beats me,” he responded.
Hindsight is easy, especially when it involves someone else. But in retrospect, Anthony should have taken some of that $14 million in marketing money and hired a top-rank risk management expert -- and then taken his or her advice.