Woodlands owner ponders its future

The acclaimed inn and restaurant at the Woodlands closed earlier this month, right before the property was sold. (AP/File)

SUMMERVILLE — Condos probably would be the most lucrative option for the former Woodlands Resort, its new owner concedes.

But what Tom Limehouse wants is something more like Alhambra Hall, the spacious, columned former ferry terminal on Charleston Harbor that Mount Pleasant runs as a special-events venue, he said.

Limehouse, 53, Summerville Auto Auction owner, completed the purchase of the Woodlands this week from Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

He wouldn’t say the price, but said, “the dirt was worth more than I paid, the 11 acres was worth the purchase price. It was like a pretty girl that sometimes nobody will ask to dance because she’s so pretty, and you get to dance because you’re the one who asked.”

Limehouse now faces the prospect of finding a way to keep and profit from a “Golden Age” of Summerville plantation manor and grounds that were refurbished into a world-class inn and restaurant. He has two note boards full of ideas and a notion of what he wants: a multi-use, public/private venue that maintains its ambience and at least some public access.

But he could make only two assurances Friday: It won’t be bulldozed, and it won’t be a five-star resort any longer.

“Two billionaires have proven that business model doesn’t work,” he said.

He has courted community, business and government leaders looking for support and ideas that would work.

He has gotten a long list of ideas that includes a private home, a private school boarding facility, a cosmetic surgery stay-in facility, offices in the former hotel rooms, a teaching kitchen and a relocated Summerville Museum.

He’s given himself until November to begin narrowing the list, until December to make a firm decision.

He’s still looking for ways to make it work.

“Salamander’s generosity has given me flexibility to do things I would not be able to otherwise. Usually when you make a business decision, you try to make the most money. This isn’t one of those times,” he said.

The Woodlands means something to him, Limehouse said. His mother worked there as a nurse for the Gadsden family that once owned it. His father delivered milk there. He was a Woodlands club member for more than a decade, and his son worked as a valet.

“Summerville doesn’t have an Angel Oak. Summerville doesn’t have a lot of things anymore. But Summerville still has the Woodlands,” he said.

“Whatever decision I make, I have to live with the rest of my life. This isn’t a purely business opportunity.”

Limehouse has his work cut out for him. Two inn-keeping interests have run the resort and failed to make a go of it, struggling with the odd location of a high-end resort in bedroom community Summerville.

In 2010, a local group led by attorney John Linton stepped in, tried to broaden the customer base, but failed.

“I know Tom Limehouse has his heart in the right place,” said Nancyjean Nettles, who will take over in January as chairmwoman of the Greater Summerville Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce board. “But I think it’s going to take getting community energy involved for him to have a chance. I would love to see a think tank of Summerville and Dorchester County leaders have a brainstorming session with him.”

Limehouse was one of two dozen state legislators convicted in the Lost Trust legislature corruption scandal two decades ago.

He knows that’s still in some people’s minds. He doesn’t want his picture taken, and he has tried to keep the focus off himself.

“I want to do the right thing, and I want to stay as low-key as possible. It’s not about me. It’s about a Lowcountry landmark,” he said. He quiets for a long moment when told people have been asking how he came up with the money to buy the resort.

“Where did I make my money? Summerville Auto Auction. I worked hard for 20 years to get the money to do that. Honestly, for what they sold it to me for, anybody would have run out and figured out a way to do it,” he said.

“I believe Salamander made me an exceptional deal partly because they felt I would do the right thing with it. I think we’ve got an unique opportunity, if the community wants, to make public and private work together to preserve the past and enhance quality of life,” he said.

“If the community doesn’t want to go that direction, I’ll probably make more money off it.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or @bopete on Twitter.