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By ADAM SCHUPAK
DETROIT – It’s the last Sunday morning of June and Bishop Charles Ellis III implores his congregation at Greater Grace Temple Pentecostal church to “get their praise on.” He is energized, and so are his parishioners who shower him with applause like roses on an opera star. Ellis smiles for the thousands seated in the pews as well as the faithful at home watching his sermon on TV. He begins to sing, accompanied by a chorus of seven.
“I’m not saying sing a song,” he preaches between lyrics. “I’m saying live a testimony.”
Soon it is that time in the service for announcements, and should anyone have forgotten, Ellis reminds the congregation that next week is “Mortgage Sunday.” In addition to the tithe, many of the worshippers pledged to give a minimum of $150 per month toward the monthly mortgage, a hefty sum in excess of $100,000.
Services at Greater Grace Temple aren’t held at one of those converted liquor stores prevalent in Detroit. The house of worship is an urban counterpart to the mega churches that stretch across the suburbs, a 20-acre complex called the City of David after the birthplace of Christ. Ellis boasts that they’ve never been late with a payment and insists they never will be. “We can’t all give equally,” he says, “but we can all give sacrificially. How can you not invest when you see such fruit?”
A predominantly African-American church, Greater Grace Temple is a place for the broken, hurting and lost. It’s a church that goes beyond walls, whose sanctuary extends to those praying for a birdie or at least a good bounce.
Last spring, Detroit’s largest church bought neighboring Rogell Golf Course, a rundown muni for $2.1 million from the cash-strapped city. If it seems an unusual acquisition that’s because it is: Ownership of courses by minorities is rare, and even fewer churches can stake that claim.
But for Greater Grace Temple, saving Rogell is part and parcel of its greater mission to save an entire community. During a time when the city’s aquarium and several of its schools, parks and recreation centers have been razed or abandoned, the words In God We Trust have been lifted off the dollar bill and become a rallying cry. The church is proving to be a more willing and able surrogate than social services to revitalize the northwest corner of Detroit.
As the golf world descends upon the city for the 90th PGA Championship, many will focus their attention on Donald Ross’ venerable creation, Oakland Hills Golf Club. But a glance at nearby Rogell, another Ross design, may prove far more revealing.
The course, off Seven Mile Road at Berg Road, opened for play in 1914 as Phoenix Country Club. It’s a product of Detroit’s Jewish social club, which purchased more than 100 acres from two family farms so its members could have a place to play golf.
Pioneering architect Tom Bendelow laid out the original nine holes, but they gave way to an 18-hole track designed by Ross. When the members built yet another course in the suburbs, they sold Phoenix Country Club. Renamed Redford Golf Course, it opened to the public and eventually fell under the city’s stewardship in 1946.
This is where Michigan golf legend Chuck Kocsis learned the game as a caddie and starred for Redford High School from 1928 to ’31. LPGA founding member Shirley Spork is older than she cares to admit, but remembers clear as day being 13, and with a cherished $35 season pass in hand, riding her bicycle five miles to tee it up at Redford.
“I used to play the men for a nickel a hole,” she says.
In 1979, the course was renamed after William Rogell, the hawk-nosed, sure-handed shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, who served 38 years as a city councilman. (Rogell at age 94 threw out the first pitch at the final game played at Tiger Stadium in 1999.)
Though only 6,075 yards in length, the course isn’t a museum piece, says Jeff Mingay, a course architect and admirer of the layout. Rogell is deceptively difficult. Its greens are small, sloped and severe. Rogell remained a city-owned course until Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sold it as part of a plan to raise $30 million to help balance the budget.
Detroit’s problems are no secret. Beleaguered by the loss of auto-industry jobs, the Motor City’s tailspin has led to an exodus of more than 1 million residents in the past half-century. Fewer tax dollars result in fewer public facilities.
Last year, the city shut down the nearby 8th police precinct and Redford High School. Near the third hole on Lahser Road, stands a shuttered YMCA building, its letters still visible, but fading. Many feared the golf course would vanish next.
Though the church has rescued Rogell for the time being, its long-term future is by no means secure. Rounds need to increase.
Repairs need to be made. Revenues need to cover expenses. As much as Ellis has become a golfer, first and foremost he remains a businessman. He can sound unsentimental and calculating about the course acquisition when he notes the 120 acres the church purchased are zoned for residential and commercial – and could be developed into housing or even a strip mall.
Another issue: The church may owe property taxes of $100,000 for the course. Ellis says he could avoid the liability by closing the course and calling it the church’s campground.
“There’s nothing in the Bible that says I have to run it as a golf course,” he says.
And if he were to be offered, say $5 million for the land to turn a tidy $3 million profit on the church’s investment? “The Lord,” he says, “would have to come down and tell me it’s holy ground.”
Rogell’s turnaround depends heavily on its 42-year-old general manager and head professional, Lindsey Mason III. At 13, Mason borrowed his cousin’s caddie number to loop at Detroit Country Club. There he earned the nickname “Little Detroit” and caddied for the likes of the Firestone and Ford families, who gave him his first set of Patty Berg clubs.
Mason watched how the members treated the head pro – “like a god” he says – and decided that was the life for him. He turned professional at 23 and worked as an assistant at Detroit Golf Club. But he thought he could achieve more teaching at municipal courses throughout Detroit such as Chandler Park Golf Course and Belle Isle Golf Course.
He was in his second stint at Rogell when the city’s contractor opted out of its management deal in 2006 with one year remaining on the contract. Rogell’s future looked in doubt. Mason believed the course should be saved. He turned to Ellis, one of his golf pupils, as Rogell’s rescuer. Mason explained to Ellis that Rogell had been mismanaged and pitched his plan to revive it. Ellis prayed for guidance from above.
To better grasp why a church would consider buying a course, it helps to understand the history of Greater Grace Temple. Founded in 1927, the church began in the basement of Bishop Ellington Forbes’ modest home.
The three-member congregation consisted of Forbes, his wife and his mother-in-law. When Bishop David Ellis moved his young family from Chicago to take over as pastor in 1962, the church had less than 100 members and faced foreclosure on its property among a litany of other woes: $95,000 debt, no gas, an overdue electric bill. But Ellis had faith. He said then, “God will give us help that we know not of.”
Known for his fiery sermons and community involvement, Ellis attracted new attendees. To accommodate a growing congregation, the church bought a Jewish synagogue in 1970 and converted it into a 2,200-seat cathedral.
In 1987, David Ellis and son Charles were riding in their car when they passed a flat, barren stretch of land where for a half-century stood Edgewater Amusement Park. The mention of the place takes Charles Ellis back to his childhood when he cut out 50 cents-off coupons from milk cartons to go there and ride the Ferris wheel. Since the park closed in 1981, the property sat vacant and littered with garbage. A “For Sale” sign might as well have been divine intervention.
Acquiring the land made practical sense: Should Greater Grace Temple need to expand, where would it find 20 contiguous acres in Detroit? One man’s dump is another’s future pulpit. The church closed on the property in 1988, and more than a decade later turned to it for a new home.
David Ellis died of a heart attack in 1996 before he could realize his dream. But the grieving son, thrust into the position of pastor, assured the congregation, “the vision shall come to pass.”
That day arrived on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2002. From its humble beginnings, Greater Grace Temple has grown into the largest ministry complex in Detroit, an ultra-modern, 170,000-square-foot facility that easily could be mistaken for a medical center if not for the twin white spires that reach heavenward.
The church cost $36 million. It has hosted presidential candidates such as Al Gore and laid civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks to rest. But it doesn’t require a special occasion for cars to cram the lot. The faithful who comprise this congregation of 6,500 often spill out of the entryway as they wait for white-gloved ushers to escort them to their seats. Many pastors are content to build a church.
The Ellises set out to build “a city within a city,” a haven unlike Detroit’s downtown that has withered from neglect and empty promises. “Urban renewal to us means remove all the blacks,” explains Carl Collins, Detroit’s Building Authority treasurer, who also works as a developer and urban consultant.
Greater Grace Temple views the concept in an altogether different light. When the church saw the need for credit resources in a cash-starved neighborhood, it opened a credit union in 1981. When blue-collar auto-industry jobs disappeared, it established a travel agency and a car wash and hired members of the congregation.
Today, the church employs nearly 300 and owns and operates, among other businesses, a Montessori day-care center, two charter schools (grade K-8), more than 100 housing units for seniors and families, and a funeral home. It can take members from the cradle to the grave.
“The church is the only institution in Detroit that has the means financially,” Collins says. “If the church doesn’t do it, who will?”
In February 2007, Ellis approached the city about acquiring Rogell. When word spread about a potential deal, residents rejoiced. Greater Grace’s name has become synonymous with success.
“They’ve made the whole area better,” says Mary Haney, Redford’s unofficial historian.
In April 2007, the city of Detroit and Greater Grace Temple shook hands, and the sale closed on June 20, 2007. The church since has leased the course for $1 to Heavenly Golf Enterprises, a newly formed for-profit entity created to operate the course and insulate the church from liability. Ellis hired Mason to oversee golf operations.
They christened the course the “New” Rogell Golf Course during the grand reopening. Ellis crushed the ceremonial first drive, and when Mason’s drive rolled short of it, Ellis
couldn’t resist dishing out a good-natured ribbing: “Who’s the pastor and who’s the pro?”
A skeptic might say the church must have ulterior motives. Ellis doesn’t wave off such discussion. He confronts it head-on and is quick to concede the purchase of Rogell serves more than one purpose.
He considers it a defensive maneuver to protect the church’s surroundings, and with good reason: The church has invested nearly $50 million in the area. Says Ellis: “An old preacher once advised me God isn’t making any more land.”
But it doesn’t hurt that Ellis has become a bona fide golf nut. Softball, the game his father loved, was his passion, too. Even after members of the church bought him a set of Pinnacle clubs, they sat wrapped in his office for a year.
That is, until he played in a charity fundraiser in 1999 and had the time of his life. He has played golf all over the world – from the Old Course at St. Andrews to below the Alps in Switzerland. He keeps a set of clubs at Detroit Golf Club, another in his car trunk, and the Pinnacles in Ghana, where he oversees more than 100 Pentecostal churches.
At home, Ellis plays three or four times a week with a regular foursome of church members, sometimes even after Sunday services. But he had never played Rogell before last year, turned off by its sullied reputation.
In 2000 the course generated revenues of nearly $1 million, but by 2006 it recorded only $270,000, according to Ellis. The city’s endless budget cuts left Rogell in a perpetual state of neglect. Among the problems: Undefined tee boxes, shaggy greens, sandless bunkers and trees in desperate need of pruning.
The most pressing concern at Rogell is the Rouge River, which meanders for 120 miles and empties into the Detroit River. The Rouge’s tributaries cross through five holes, often flooding the course and exposing drainage problems.
“The water has collected so high on 11, 12, and 13,” Mason says, “you could sit a yacht down and dock it.”
They’ve dredged a pond by the third hole and cleaned up debris that blocked the drainage, but they’re Band-Aid measures at best. After a recent downpour flooded much of the back nine, lakes formed in the 13th fairway and in front of the 17th green, giving new meaning to the term standing water.
The next day, the back nine closed for the first time this year. It’s a crippling problem that needs attention, but one Mason says can be fixed with a couple of retention ponds. The church already has hired a new superintendent and increased the maintenance budget by more than $150,000.
“Look at how the grass is cut,” Ellis brags. “It’s like Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers play). Someone is painstakingly putting time into cutting it a certain way.”
His words ring with hyperbole, but regulars do rave about the improved conditions. They say the greens are in the best shape in years. Mason is confident that as good news spreads, golfers will return to Rogell, improving upon the 20,000 rounds it did in 2007. (Back in 1996, Rogell reported 50,000 rounds.)
So far, Ellis says course ownership isn’t straining the church’s finances; it subsidized only $60,000 of Rogell’s operations last year. And church leaders are discussing making capital improvements to the clubhouse to support banquets and weddings, which should generate revenue year-round. “We have a term we use when asked how we are doing: blessed and highly favored,” Ellis says.
Would the church expand its portfolio and buy one or more of the city’s remaining four municipal courses if the opportunity arose? He answers without hesitation: “Our congregation is always receptive to another vision.” Amen.
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Adam Schupak is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him email email@example.com.