Justin's Empire: Timberlake drives business interests where it all began

By Eric Smith

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Justin Timberlake might be best known for hit records, dance moves and sold-out concerts, but the 28-year-old entertainer extraordinaire is much more than a singer/dancer/performer. The award-winning, chart-topping Timberlake – or, simply, JT – has become an institution, a brand name that transcends his showbiz persona and carries as much cachet as any living celebrity.

In the past few years Timberlake has launched his own tequila, his own record label and his own clothing line. He has invested in restaurants and created a charity golf tournament.

But as he sees it, those ventures are no match for Mirimichi, the $16 million golf complex near Millington that Timberlake opened in July.

Justin Timberlake embraces his stepfather, Paul Harless, during the unveiling of Mirimichi golf course. The father-son duo are responsible for saving the old Big Creek Golf Course from auction and converting it into the eco-friendly Mirimichi. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

When The Memphis News asked Timberlake to compare Mirimichi with his other business enterprises in terms of the passion and effort he poured into them, the Millington native was quick to share what the golf course means to him.

“I think this is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” Timberlake responded during a recent press conference unveiling Mirimichi. “I enjoy being able to give back to the city, the city that obviously I grew up in and has been so great to my family.”

Giving back is an understatement when discussing Mirimichi, the former Big Creek Golf Course that Timberlake and his family bought in 2007, renovated, rebranded and now operate as a public course. That’s because the 300-acre property at 6195 Woodstock Cuba Road in the unincorporated Woodstock community off U.S. 51 between Memphis and Millington could have a lasting, positive impact – on the economy and the environment – that far exceeds the megastar’s initial investment.

Beautiful accident

Mirimichi dates back to the late 1970s when Dr. Billy Mitchell transformed a bean field near Shelby Forest into a golf course that he dubbed Woodstock Hills Country Club. In 1990, Mitchell’s estate sold the club to Continental Golf Management, which changed the name to Big Creek Golf Course. Mississippi real estate developer Lanier Hurdle bought the course in 1999.

Despite changes in ownership, the spirit of the club remained the same, capturing the hearts of the Timberlake family over the years. Timberlake’s mom and stepfather, Lynn and Paul Harless, held their wedding reception at Woodstock Hills in the mid-1980s. And as residents of nearby Shelby Forest, they turned to golf after realizing their sporting hobbies – Lynn was a softball player and Paul was a chess player – didn’t mesh.

“Those were not really conducive to each other,” Lynn said, “but in marrying my love for the physical game and his love for the intellectual game, we settled on golf as our thing.”

Lynn said the sport evolved into a passion for the family, including Timberlake. Paul taught him how to play when he was 10, with Timberlake hitting his first golf ball on Big Creek’s 10th tee. As he forged a successful music career – first in the Mickey Mouse Club, then in ’N Sync and later as a solo artist – Timberlake played golf often and continued to hone the skills he first developed at Big Creek. He eventually became a 6-handicap player, which is a golf formula that means he’s pretty good.

Timberlake’s connection to the sport and to his home course came to light two years ago when he heard that Big Creek faced an uncertain future. The owner was planning to auction the property, perhaps sending it into the hands of real estate developers who might turn the sprawling acreage into a subdivision.

Timberlake was in the midst of his FutureSex/LoveShow tour when he learned of Big Creek’s fate, so he and his family decided to make an offer on the property, agreeing to acquire it for $880,000. Operating as Big Creek Golf LLC (Tennessee), Timberlake and his parents took ownership of the course Dec. 12, 2007, later spending $1.2 million for a handful of parcels that buffered it. With deed in hand, they formed a new vision for Big Creek. That meant razing the old course and overhauling the entire property.

To fill what would be a blank palette, Big Creek Golf hired a local golf course design firm called Talent Golf, whose principals are Randy Wilson and Mike MacElhose. Timberlake and the Harlesses also brought on Rich Peterson as general manager, his wife, Deb, as director of sales and marketing, and Greg King as director of golf.

For Timberlake, the whole process of discovering Big Creek’s woes, buying the course, hiring a team to redesign and manage it, and seeing the course transform before his eyes was magical. He compared it to those unexpected moments in the recording studio when the bass player and keyboardist and the drummer all come together in perfect harmony to give the song life.

Those are the moments he calls “beautiful accidents.”

“That’s the same way I think of Mirimichi, what it was and what it’s become,” Timberlake said. “This whole thing started as an accident.”

Happy retreat

Mirimichi, www.mirimichi.com, a Native American word meaning “place of happy retreat,” began as an accident, but there is nothing accidental about the renovated and reinvigorated golf complex. Every blade of grass seems to have a purpose, a field of feng shui. Those who played the old course say it doesn’t resemble Big Creek at all except for the basic direction of the 18 holes, and that the changes are all for the better.


1978: Dr. Billy Mitchell opens Woodstock Hills Country Club at 6195 Woodstock Cuba Road near Millington.

1990: Mitchell’s estate sells the 300-acre course to Continental Golf Management (operating as Big Creek Partners) for $1.7 million. Continental Golf Management renames the course Big Creek Golf Club.

1999: Big Creek Partners sells the property to North Creek Inc. (whose principal is real estate developer Lanier Hurdle) for $1.2 million.

2003: North Creek Inc. sells the property to related company Big Creek Golf LLC (Mississippi), with the same ownership, for $2.3 million.

2007: Big Creek Golf LLC sells the property to Justin Timberlake and family – under the name Big Creek Golf LLC (Tennessee) – for $880,000. The two sides agree to terms prior to a scheduled auction of the property.

2008: Work begins on extensive redesign of golf course, to be named Mirimichi, a Native American word that means “place of happy retreat.” The new Big Creek Golf LLC buys 19 parcels of land surrounding the golf course for a combined $1.2 million.

2009: Timberlake christens the $16 million Mirimichi golf course by teeing off on the 10th hole, the same place he first hit a golf ball.

2011: Mirimichi’s 43,000-square-foot LEED Platinum-certified clubhouse scheduled to

At 7,400 yards from the back tees, the Par 72 course contains 84 bunkers and water on 15 of 18 holes. While the original Big Creek course had 190 acres of mowable turf, Talent Golf reduced that to 85 acres, including the tees, greens and intermediate rough, shrinking the fairways and increasing the chances of players losing golf balls. The course, with five different tee boxes to accommodate a variety of skill levels, is so riddled with hazards that the Golf Channel called Wilson and MacElhose “mad geniuses.”

For Timberlake, whose golf savvy and celebrity status affords him the chance to play storied courses such as Bethpage Black in New York, the site of recent U.S. Open golf tournaments, each hole at Mirimichi is memorable.

“I’d put it up there with the best public courses I’ve ever played,” he said. “You’re seeing it in its infant stages, but when it’s grown in, I’d throw it up there with Bethpage Black any day.”

Moreover, Mirimichi features a 9-hole, Par 35 executive course called Little Mirimichi, which will open in September; an 18-hole putting course; and a practice facility that includes a driving range and a chipping area.

Timberlake and the Harlesses chose to keep the cost of playing Mirimichi as low as possible. Though its price exceeds many public courses in Memphis, it still is within the price range of avid golfers. The weekday price for 18 holes is $59, the weekend price is $71 and the course offers other options such as twilight rates (after 2:30 p.m.) and 9-hole rates.

Rich Peterson, who also works as chief operating officer for Just-In Time Entertainment Inc., the ‘all things Timberlake’ corporation that Paul Harless oversees, said keeping rates to a minimum was part of Mirimichi’s mission, a luxury afforded by the ownership group’s deep pockets.

“We’re very fortunate in the fact that Justin and his parents, Paul and Lynn, do not need to commercialize the golf for profit,” Peterson said. “Our golf fees are pretty much at a break-even for us. We do want to keep the maintenance of our golf course and the customer experience at extremely high quality levels, so we have extra staff on hand, and we’re always in a training mode, so that does cost a little extra in terms of expense. Because we are not too worried about the profit aspect of things, we can charge very a low fee for our golf rates.”

For Lynn Harless, the goal in keeping the prices relatively low was part of the family’s vision to share Mirimichi with the community – and the world.

“This has been a special place for us all of our lives,” she said. “It’s our place of happy retreat and we want it to be yours also.”

Earth first

Not only was Mirimichi designed to be different than the old Big Creek, it was designed to be different than any golf course in the world. Timberlake, when spearheading a master plan for Mirimichi, posed a simple question: “Is it possible for a golf course to actually be green?”

The answer was yes. And that’s when a new player entered the picture: Audubon International, a nonprofit sustainability entity that balances the needs of the earth with the needs of the project. Big Creek Golf contracted with the organization to make the golf course and all its facilities “green,” a priority for Timberlake and the entire team working to bring Mirimichi to life.

Russ Bodie of Audubon International was the chief consultant on Mirimichi. Bodie said the project hit a home run when it came to environmental friendliness, a phrase he was able to quantify through his organization’s Audubon Classic Sanctuary program, which certifies green projects.

Bodie said Mirimichi achieved an ecological A-plus through a series of categories. That started with clean water, a feat it accomplished through the re-irrigation of the entire course, plus the reclamation and reuse of rainwater.

As seen here performing on Beale Street in 2006 for a broadcast of “Good Morning America,” Justin Timberlake has long been a hometown favorite. The Millington native speaks often of Memphis, and he has backed that up with the completion of the $16 million Mirimichi golf course. Timberlake and his family own a host of other businesses that reflect the pop singer’s affinity for home. -- AP PHOTO/GREG CAMPBELL

“Every drop of water that falls on this site – falls on a tee, a fairway, a green, a parking lot – that water is filtered, it’s cleaned, before it even reaches a pond,” Bodie said. “We like to think of ponds from a frog’s perspective.”

Bodie said Mirimichi even filters some water from adjacent neighborhoods that flows through the property. As an additional safeguard, Mirimichi regularly monitors water quality in the property’s myriad ponds and streams.

The course also strives to protect plant and wildlife habitat, and it works to incorporate an efficiency of natural resources, which it accomplished by replacing mowable grass with natural grasses that help foster wildlife and filter storm runoff.

Also, the club’s maintenance facility is called a “natural resource management center.” Maintenance staff members promote green practices, for example, when they wash the lawn mowers. To reduce the use of fresh water, the water that is used for washing is recaptured, filtered, treated, stored and reused to rinse off mowers the next day.

Mirimichi staff hope to educate the community about the course’s eco-friendly measures, the most obvious of which won’t be seen until 2011. That’s when a 43,000-square-foot clubhouse will open. It will be the first Platinum LEED-certified golf clubhouse in the world, a facility that uses recycled materials to construct it and solar energy to power it. Rich Peterson couldn’t yet put a price tag on the building, but he said it should reach “eight figures.”

All of these initiatives came from the man who asked what it would take to make a golf course green.

“To be a leader in something like an eco-friendly golf course is an amazing feat,” Timberlake said, answering a question from The Memphis News. “The only thing I really did was pose the question. All these other guys got ’er done.”

JT Inc.

Though Timberlake eschews much of the credit, he has a reputation for getting ’er done in the business world, and each one of them ties back to his hometown, even if the connection is less direct than Mirimichi’s.

Timberlake’s tequila is called “901 Tequila” (the local area code, yes, but also a nod to the time, 9:01 p.m., when the “night begins”). He serves as chairman and CEO of Tennman (as in “Tennessee Man”) Records, a joint venture with Interscope Records, based in Los Angeles; Tennman has an outline of the Tennessee map in its logo, and Timberlake formed it after his efforts to revive the Stax label failed to materialize.

The William Rast clothing line Timberlake started with his friend, Juan “Trace” Ayala, is said to be inspired by the fashion of another famous Memphis musician, Elvis Presley. And one of Timberlake’s eateries, the Southern Hospitality BBQ and Bar in New York, features food “you’d expect at your local Memphis neighborhood restaurant.”

Randy Wilson, far right, and Mike MacElhose, second from right, of Talent Golf designed Mirimichi. When asked about Justin Timberlake’s contributions to the golf course’s redesign, Wilson said, “The deal was, if he taught us how to dance, we would teach him how to run a bulldozer.” Timberlake’s stepfather, Paul Harless, is at left. Mirimichi, a Native American word meaning “place of happy retreat,” is a challenging Par 72, 7,400-yard course. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

While Timberlake’s prior ventures have sent the Memphis flavor out into the world, Mirimichi strives to bring the world to Memphis, a goal underscored by Deb Peterson, who oversees the club’s sales and marketing efforts.

Peterson said Mirimichi is working with the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau to woo sales meetings and conventions to the area. She said she hopes Mirimichi will complement the city’s cultural assets and its convention and hotel space by attracting more business here.

“We’re giving them that edge to differentiate Memphis and go after those,” Deb Peterson said. “We believe, right or wrong, when someone is making a decision to bring their large sales meeting or convention to Memphis, that (Mirimichi) can be a differentiating factor. We can beat out Nashville; we can beat out some of these other cities.”

Mirimichi’s impact already can be felt in the number of jobs it has created. Hundreds of crew members were employed during the months-long construction. (Note: a worker was killed during construction when a tree fell on him in February.) Rich Peterson said Mirimichi will have a peak season staff of 100 people, with 60 of those being full-time, year-round employees, and the other 40 working during the busy summer months. And Deb Peterson said future plans at the course might include a resort spa and other destination amenities.

Not only that, Just-In Time Entertainment will have its world headquarters inside Mirimichi’s clubhouse, giving the Timberlake empire a permanent, local home.

As for future ventures, including more investments in the local area – perhaps something on Beale Street?

“Absolutely,” said Rich Peterson. “We come across two or three deals every month that are presented, and we try to pick and choose the best opportunities and see if they’re worthwhile.”

That objective was echoed by Paul Harless, the former First Tennessee executive, who said Mirimichi’s mission is three-fold: It wants to contribute to growth in the community, growth in the local economy and growth in the game of golf.

The first goal will be accomplished by revitalizing “this neighborhood, this north spur of Memphis between Millington and Memphis and create some terrific economic and development growth opportunities here,” Harless said. The second goal will be accomplished by marketing Mirimichi as a “unique resort and … terrific tourist destination,” he added. And the third goal will be accomplished by luring tournaments – such as a U.S. Open – and other major events.

“Our role is not only to make this a great golf course,” Paul Harless said, “but to plant the seeds of growth for this great community and for this great city.”

Ripple effect

When Richard Hodges ran for mayor of Millington last fall, one of his platforms was the revitalization of downtown. Hodges last month heard Timberlake on the local news talk about opening Mirimichi. The pop singer shared his goals of bringing a major golf tournament to town, introducing golf to local children and – best of all – revitalizing the Millington area.

“I like to faint and holler when I heard that,” Hodges said. “When he said ‘revitalization,’ I like to come unglued. I said, ‘I am not believing this.’ ”

It didn’t take long for Hodges to become a believer. During Mirimichi’s first few days of being open to the public, several people stopped at City Hall asking for directions to the golf course, so Hodges has already seen the course draw out-of-towners.

“In Millington we’re trying to revitalize our downtown and promote Millington and get tourism,” Hodges said, noting that the city recently acquired the USA Stadium baseball complex. “All this fits in a perfect game plan. We got that facility over there, we can boast on Mirimichi and we’ve got other golf (courses) in the area.”

The new mayor is so thrilled with the new addition to the area that earlier this week he gave Deb and Rich Peterson a key to the city and read a proclamation honoring them and Mirimichi. It’s the least he could do considering the exposure Millington has received in the past few months. Hodges’ brother even saw the town featured on a newscast in Orlando, Fla.

“I said, ‘Man, we’re big time now,’” Hodges said. “We’re just tickled to death. The whole plan for this end of the county just fits perfectly. With all the negative stuff you hear, this is so much positive.”

More good news could find its way to Millington. Rumors persist that the Naval Support Activity Mid-South there might gain more military and civilian personnel. With Mirimichi’s arrival, the prospect of more retail and restaurant developments – once the economy turns, at least – becomes more likely. And it might be only a matter of time before the speculative real estate developers arrive, dollar signs in their eyes.

“Each spoke we get makes the wheel stronger and stronger and stronger,” Hodges said. “It’s just an amazing time to be in Millington.”

Martin Edwards is the developer of Thornhill Estates, a 95-acre subdivision off U.S. 51 and south of Big Creek Church Road, as well as the proposed Barret Oaks, a $40 million mixed-use senior living community at the southwest corner of Raleigh-Millington Road and the Paul Barret Parkway (Tenn. 385).

Both developments are within 10 minutes of Mirimichi, something Edwards said bodes well when looking at the golf complex as an anchor that will surely draw other projects to it, whether residential or commercial.

“Anytime someone spends that kind of money within five or six miles of where you are, it’s going to be advantageous – that’s the selfish side of it,” Edwards said. “It makes Millington a more logical, sustainable community. It will bring a lot of people up to that part of Shelby County that may or may not come up that far in the county very often. It’s putting another star on that part of the county.”

‘Master of Mirimichi’

Elvis Presley was known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Michael Jackson was known as the King of Pop. Justin Timberlake is seen by some as an heir apparent to those two stars for his singing and dancing abilities, and also for a rare magnetism that makes him popular from teeny boppers to Saturday Night Live viewers to golf connoisseurs.

The former Mickey Mouse Club and ’N Sync boy band star might earn an honorable music nickname as his career progresses, something that recognizes his musical talent – or the way he has given back and continues to give back to his hometown.

For now, Timberlake can live with “Master of Mirimichi,” the moniker Paul Harless gave him last month when introducing his stepson to the crowd. It might not have the same ring as Presley’s or Jackson’s well-known handles, but in Memphis it’s a name that now carries a lot of weight.

“‘Master of Mirimichi’ is a funny title but I’ll take it,” Timberlake said. “All that I did was put the right people in the right place at the right time all together, and watched all of them – the best at what they do – make this what it has become today. I’m not going to take credit for it, but it’s wonderful to be a part of.”