John O'Neal

John O’Neal discusses upgrades and renovations planned for Fincastle in his office on Thursday. 

BLUEFIELD, Va. — When the Town of Bluefield purchased the former Fincastle County Club last year, it was a move to save not only jobs but also preserve a community asset that may not have survived otherwise.

The 6,700-yard 18-hole golf course lying in a picturesque setting at the foot of East River Mountain includes more than 410 acres as well as a clubhouse, restaurant, meeting rooms, Olympic size swimming pool and tennis courts.

With a population loss in the area and fewer members to support a private club in recent years, the town took a plunge and stepped up for the acquisition and to make a private club a municipal community asset.

After a public hearing was held on the purchase in May 2019 and an agreement reached in July, the town officially took over the facility on Sept. 30, financed by the issuance of $1.9 million in bonds.

The name was also changed to simply Fincastle.

Although both the golf course and the restaurant, which was called Fincastle on the Mountain, have remained open, Mayor Don Harris said it’s been a matter of learning the ropes, making plans for all of the facility as well as completing any needed upgrades.

“We are just working to gradually upgrade some of the deficiencies that have existed,” he said. “We are adding more things to the clubhouse to make it more presentable. We are working as we can afford to. We are going to do it right.”

Harris said the facility has been surprisingly busy already, though, with reservations for weddings, showers and company parties as well as the golf course and restaurant.

He had high praise to the two key people hired by the town to manage it: former Graham High School Principal John O’Neal and Jessima Frye, who was manager of the cafeterias for Bland County Schools.

O’Neal said that after spending the month of September making plans and going over all of the details of the facility, when the deal was officially closed on Sept. 30 they were ready to go.

“We shut down two days (Oct. 1 and 2),” he said, but the golf course remained open. The inside was thoroughly cleaned and carpets shampooed.

But since then, ‘We have been running at full tilt.”

In fact, during the Christmas holidays, Fincastle had 27 events in 21 days.

“People are very eager to use this facility for their events,” he said. “We hosted a Super Bowl party, with a buffet and TVs in the bar, and the (college) national championship and semi-finals. We already have more than 100 events already in the books for this year It’s really jumped out a lot quicker than we thought.”

The fact that many employees who had been with the country club for years has helped, he said.

Improvements are being made as they go and last week the main “ballroom” used for events was being painted to brighten up the room.

A new roof is in the works as well.

One thing in particular people are excited about, he said, is the swimming pool.

Summer passes will be sold soon, he said, probably starting next month.

“We have had a lot of calls about it,” he said, adding that passes will be for individuals or families. The pool will be open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The tennis courts will be upgraded.

“The courts need a lot of work and that is still in the planning stages,” he said.

O’Neal said Frye, with her experience in food service, has been in charge of the restaurant, with Frye and chef Eric Kidd tweaking the menu as they go along.

On Thursday last week, the dining area was almost full as well as the meeting rooms where the American Legion was meeting. The Bluefield, Va. Rotary Club also has lunch meetings there.

“We are feeling our way around to see what people want,” he said. “We will change it as we go along. Some will be seasonal.”

The restaurant is open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

On first and third Sundasy a buffet is offered from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Frye said she has been fortunate to work with many former employees of the country club.

“We have a great staff. Most stayed on from Fincastle on the Mountain,” she said. “They were given that opportunity if they wanted to stay on. Most of our kitchen staff remains the same.They do a great job.”

Frye said the lunch menu does not change much as far as the basics, like sandwiches, but a buffet has been added every Thursday for the lunch crowd.

“Our dinner menu is ever-evolving, though,” she said, as they learn about what people want.

The Sunday buffet will also be open extra days in April and May for Easter and Mother’s Day, she added.

Valentine’s Day saw something new as well.

“We had pasta station,” she said. “It was very big with the members of the country club but this was the first time it was offered to the public. They call it an “action station.’”

Customers can add whatever they choose from a line of ingredients with the pasta and the chef cooks it in front of them.

Frye said the busiest day so far was Dec. 21, when Fincastle hosted three different Christmas parties.

“We rented out every room,” she said. “We had over 300 people on the property that night.”

Events are all catered by her staff as well, she added.

While Frye handles the events and restaurant, O’Neal, an avid golfer himself, concentrates in that area, saying several tournaments are planned for this year

“We have a pro shop that was not stocked,” he said, “and it will be fully stocked, except for clubs.”

The course itself has new flag sticks and flags.

“We are dressing it up … to make it an enjoyable experience,” he said.

O’Neal said fees are reasonable, at $35 weekdays and $45 on weekends, and that price includes a cart for 18 holes. Annual memberships can also be purchased, a bargain for those who play often, he added.

Golf teams from Bluefield College and Bluefield State College use the course.

“We hope to build on that relationship and the relationship with the community,” he said.

O’Neal said the course will be affiliated with both the Virginia and West Virginia golf associations and he wants to implement a junior golf program and day camps for junior golfers.

The course will host the Blue Ridge Student Golf Tour.

“We want to give kids an opportunity to learn the game,” he said.

O’Neal said he and his family are “passionate” about golf and his son plays in college.

As the staff makes adjustments and tries to offer the community a municipal asset that is available for everyone, O’Neal said a big plus has been working with the town.

“It is really nice,” he said of having the town’s resources available, ready to help in any way. “The town has been absolutely supportive and everyone at town hall has have been good, so easy to work with.”

Bluefield Town Manager Mike Watson shares the enthusiasm for the project, saying the staffs at the town and Fincastle “work like a family.”

“It is very exciting,” he said. “One of the worst things that could have happened would have been for the facility to go away. It now has an opportunity to be a jewel for the entire area. It’s a regional facility for everyone.”

Watson said the goal is to keep working to make it better.

“As we go along we will continue to make improvements,” he said. “It is a regional asset and is open to the public so that everyone gets an opportunity to use it.”

For O’Neal, it’s an job he never anticipated having, but it is rewarding.

“It’s been a good experience,” he said. “It’s been a good four months. It’s been exciting, and it’s been busy.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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