October 12, 2012 10:34:26 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
It's a typical Thursday at the Columbus Country Club. The rattle of dishes blends with the murmur of voices as the kitchen staff serves lunch to members of the Exchange Club. Tuesday, they fed the Rotary Club, along with the Lowndes County Republican Women and a politician or two. In an average week, they prepare meals for more than 200 members of area civic organizations.
The daily flurry of activities continues, though the future of many employees may be in jeopardy. Last week, the country club, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, was sold at court auction to East Mississippi Community College for $1.6 million. While EMCC officials indicate the club's staff may be able to retain their jobs, uncertainty permeates the facility.
The workers keep their worries to themselves. If they are sad, they don't allow it to show. They would have celebrated the club's centennial in 2023, and most of the 19 employees expected to still be a part of that milestone.
For EMCC, the purchase was considered a bargain -- and a chance to add another branch campus. The college currently serves 5,000 students at two main campuses in Scooba and Mayhew, the latter of which handles 80 percent of the total enrollment and has become overcrowded, limiting both enrollment and new programs.
For the country club's investors, the sale was both best-case scenario and losing proposition, marking the conclusion of a deepening financial quagmire.
For members, it is a bittersweet end to traditions that, in some cases, began generations ago. And the members are what employees will miss more than anything -- interaction with those who have made work feel like home.
For people like John Latham, it is the beginning of fervent hopes and sleepless nights.
Latham, 48, has spent nearly three decades at the club, working his way up to manager of the janitorial and maintenance staff. It's the best job he's ever had, he says, as he takes a break from his duties to rest a moment. The members treated him like family. Now, he's not sure what the future holds.
Dr. Paul Miller, vice president and operations director for EMCC, met earlier this week with Latham and his coworkers, and all were given applications for employment with the college. But there are no guarantees.
They will be kept as temporary employees through Dec. 31, and college officials have promised as many as possible will be offered full-time positions. For those deemed unneeded or unsuitable, EMCC will offer job training programs and assistance with placements elsewhere.
Latham wants to remain at the country club. He doesn't care what his new job entails; he just wants a chance.
That's what general manager Rebeca Jenkins wants as well.
She keeps her composure while she discusses her future, because, though she'd rather stay, she feels certain she can find a job elsewhere if it comes to that.
It is the fate of her employees that troubles her most -- what will become of them?
This is what keeps her awake at night, and this is when her poised professionalism gives way to pained resignation. Change is good, she says firmly, her dark eyes moist with encroaching tears.
But many of her employees lack the skills or education to easily find jobs elsewhere. Some have spent their entire working life here, because they liked it so well that, once employed, they decided to stay.
They're smart people, she says. They love what they do. All they want is for EMCC's administration to consider them.
"Don't blame the employees for the downfall of the country club," she says, tears falling freely now, too many to bother wiping away. "Treat us with respect. Encourage us. Don't stomp on us, because we're all human."
But with EMCC planning to use the facilities for its culinary arts and turf management programs, there's a lingering question of how many country club employees, if any, will be needed.
"There may be some folks there now that we can help grow into positions, and maybe they'll stay with us for a little while," Miller says. "Right now, we didn't want to lose anybody. We wanted to retain as many as we could. I would imagine we're still going to have some of those folks."
If the current workers do become EMCC employees, they will become state employees, eligible for state retirement and other benefits. They will also be subject to state standards, which may require additional training that Miller says EMCC is prepared to provide.
The college will be required to submit at least six months of documentation to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and they will have to demonstrate their ability to support the programs they intend to offer and provide an education equal to that of the other EMCC campuses.
Full-time operations won't begin until next fall, but the work starts immediately to retrofit the outdated kitchen and restore the grounds, which Miller says have fallen below the college's standards.
But he believes, even with the initial capital outlay, that the yet-to-be-named branch campus can become self-supporting.
Country Club members paid between $100 and $150 per month for memberships, and the May through Labor Day pool fee was $500. EMCC plans to offer memberships and pay-to-play golf plans as well, but the prices have not been determined.
The high cost of membership, and the clientele it attracted, has led to false perceptions over the years, Jenkins says. Outsiders called them snobs or elitists, but to her, the members are like a second family.
"They're very down-to-earth, very humble," she says. "They worked hard to get where they are, and many go above and beyond to help us. They're just wonderful. I'm going to miss them a lot."
Hope and faith
EMCC will hold a member meeting at the club Oct. 30, at 6 p.m., to answer questions and discuss plans.
Miller says the college will make the country club more available to the public, offering training, seminars, golf, facility rentals and other services.
"We really think the best way for the community to see that we're getting the most out of that investment is to keep that place busy," he says. "Time will tell, but if we look at some of our sister institutions, as long as we keep our eye on the right things, providing services open to the public and services corporate partners appreciate and can participate in, then it helps keep things going."
What keeps Latham and his co-workers going is faith in EMCC's administration.
"East Mississippi's been real nice to us since they came in," Latham says. "I hope they consider us. We don't know what's going to happen, but we hope it all turns out for the better."
Time will tell. But for now, life at the country club goes on, just as it has for 89 years.
Jenkins slips out the front door, carrying a plate of sweet potato pie. Who knows how much longer she'll be able to indulge in her kitchen staff's culinary talents, she says. Might as well enjoy it...while it lasts.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.