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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Safety concerns stall redevelopment of closed Mississippi course

A golf course closing and eventually being redeveloped for other purposes is hardly news. After all, more than 2,100 courses have closed in the past 16 years.

The stalled repurposing of a shuttered classic-era golf course due to arsenicals found in the soil and groundwater is a different matter. 

That is the story of the historic Great Southern Golf Club, a 1908 Donald Ross design in Gulfport, Mississippi. 

After more than a decade of troubled times, Great Southern was purchased at auction in May 2021 by Arbor Sites LLC, a real estate development company in Tallahassee, Florida. Strapped by debt, the course closed a year later in May 2022.

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Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport, Mississippi, had a once-proud past.

Arbor Sites bought Great Southern with designs on building 400 homes on the 129-acre site, so its eventual closure was no surprise. What stopped those plans from going forward was a bit more unexpected.

While the project sat untouched, nearby residents concerned about potential contamination on the former (and now overgrown) golf course contacted the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. 

Their concerns centered around what was described as historic use of pesticides on the golf course, their build up over time in the soil and the potential health risks when the site is disrupted during construction.

According to reports, the department notified Arbor Sites, requiring it to conduct testing of water and soil samples. Results from SEMS Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Baton Rouge, showed higher-than-recommended levels of arsenic, dieldrin and chlordane.

MSMA is an organic arsenical herbicide that has been banned for many uses, but is still available for use on turf. Chlordane was a pesticide used for insect control that was banned in 1983 due in part to its resistance to degradation. Dieldrin, developed in the 1940s as a safer alternative to DDT, was banned by the EPA for use in turf in 1974.

Within steps of the Gulf of Mexico, Great Southern Club was the oldest golf course in Mississippi when it closed earlier this year. The club had a once-proud past. A hotel on the property was a playground for the rich and famous before being destroyed by a hurricane in 1947.

President Woodrow Wilson played golf there, as did Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan. Sam Snead beat Byron Nelson there in a playoff in the 1945 Gulfport Open. 

The club's struggles started in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore. The storm destroyed the clubhouse, brought down more than 400 trees on the property and overwhelmed the golf course. 

It was another eight years before a new clubhouse reopened and the course was restored. It was sold at auction and eventually closed after incurring a great deal of debt in the years since Katrina.

Since soil and water on the property have been tested, the MDEQ has ordered more testing and could require remediation of the soil and water before the land is redeveloped. Remediation efforts could include soil and waste treatment, water treatment and use of permeable reactive barriers to sequester the materials.

This is a developing story.

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