MILTON — Hope Church spends every Sunday worshiping in the former clubhouse at a 364-acre, 18-hole, Scottish-style golf course that closed in 2010.
So when it comes to tee times, The Moors Golf Club is one of the most prestigious addresses for a church to hold services in Santa Rosa County.
Pastor Paul Malson understands just how lucky he and his congregation are since the first Sunday service at The Moors on on April 5, 2015 — when it celebrated Easter there after a gift from God and developer Brian DeMaria.
When Hope Church began using The Moors — for free — Malson asked owner and developer DeMaria if he could pay anything. DeMaria only asked for money to cover the utilities.
"(DeMaria) asked, ’Pastor, what would you like to do?" Malson recalled. "’I’d like to start a church,’ I said. He gave me the keys to the building."
But now others are looking to buy the land. DeMaria said the property has interest from developers who want to build a community for residents 55 years and older. The site is under contract for 90 days.
"We’ve had quite a bit of interest in it," said DeMaria, who bought the former golf course for $1.5 million in April 2014. "They’ve been looking at the property for about 12 months. A retirement community could be a step in the right direction."
Edsel Charles, who owns MarketGraphics Research Group, said living spaces designed for retirees in Santa Rosa County is exactly what the market needs.
"The Panhandle has made an enormous mistake by not having more focus on retirees," Charles said. "Anything it can do to help is an absolute home run."
The Moors is assessed by the Santa Rosa County property appraiser at more than $1.4 million and occupies 400 feet of frontage along Avalon Boulevard.
Roughly 70 acres is zoned commercial along the entrance of the property and the reset is zoned residential. And it’s in a prime location for growth.
DeMaria pointed out that the $40-plus million Avalon Boulevard four-lane widening project was recently finished. The $38.6 million, six-lane widening on Interstate 10 from Escambia Bay Bridge to just east of Avalon Boulevard also is almost complete.
Those road improvements make The Moors a good location for a grocery store, assisted living facility, urgent care, retail, corporate headquarters or a college campus, DeMaria said.
"We have the one of the best sites in the three counties in the western Panhandle of Florida," DeMaria said. "In fact, I don’t think there is any place better."
DeMaria also said The Moors isn’t something he views as being exclusive to playing golf anymore. Since 2006, 643 18-hole golf courses have closed (roughly 8 percent of courses), according to the National Golf Foundation.
"The cost to maintain (the course) for golf is astronomical," said DeMaria, who estimated maintenance costs at around $1 million.
The Moors hosted a senior professional golf tournament, the Emerald Coast Classic, from 1993 to 2010. It featured some of golf’s legends, including Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player.
DeMaria has just completed renovations to the lodge, clubhouse and cart barn for Hope Church, including a roof and all the windows.
Malson hopes his 150 parishioners can stay in the clubhouse after its sold, but he knows that’s no guarantee.
He would also like to open the Hope Wellness and Counseling Center in the lodge.
"This isn’t a traditional church environment in Santa Rosa County," said Malson, a pastor for 35 years. "But people feel like this is just a good place to be. It’s a warm and inviting place. We know God has allowed us to be here and if it disappeared today he has some place else for us to go."