For 15 years, the Melrose Resort has waited for a second chance. A once vibrant vacation spot sitting on the Atlantic Ocean, it is now a shell of its former self, 400 lonely acres on secluded Daufuskie Island in South Carolina.
No vacationers stay at the resort’s hotel or eat at its restaurants. No weddings are celebrated at its conference center, and no golfers putt around on its Jack Nicklaus-designed course. The sea may still lap against its beach, and some privately owned residences may still be available for rent, but this is, for the most part, a place neglected. Time, storms, and subpar management have taken a toll.
The closed luxury resort’s decay and disrepair didn’t sit well with Laura Scheeler Smith ’90, who has long vacationed on Daufuskie Island, a peaceful place that she finds comforting and inspiring. Melrose has undergone two bankruptcies, with one former owner going to jail for fraud, and Smith couldn’t stand to see the resort left in ruin. “It is a special place,” she says. “It’s a shame.”
Smith does not work in hospitality or tourism or real estate. She’s no expert on golf courses or restaurants either. In her career, she’s a director of tax operations at a consulting, tax, and audit firm, as well as the author of a new mystery novel. But, that didn’t stop her from rolling up her sleeves and trying to find a way to move the resort forward, to literally bring it back to life.
“I finally decided that no one is doing anything. It is an endless cycle of status quo,” she says. “Why don’t I see if I can get the right people in the room to make something happen?”
So, in the summer of 2020, with the Melrose Resort up for sale by its owner, Smith embarked on a mission to find the right people to revitalize and restore it. She wasn’t paid for her efforts, which took a tremendous amount of time, but every chance she had, she was making calls and connections.
“I talked to anyone who would talk to me. I have a notebook filled with contacts,” she says. “I talked to people managing golf courses. I talked to people in tourism. I talked to people in construction. I talked to people in hospitality.”
This quest would take more than two years of her life, but in the end, the fate of the resort still remains in limbo.
Feels Like Home
Smith and her family first came to Daufuskie Island in 2007 by chance, after their original plans for a spring break trip fell through. They were immediately smitten with the island, which rests between Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. They loved its beauty, its remoteness, its slower pace of life.
“It is untouched. There are dirt roads. There are huge old oaks with Spanish moss canopies,” says Smith, who resides in Atlanta. “This was the place I was searching for all my life. It was quiet. It was still. Even though I had never been there before, this was my home.”
On an impulse right after the trip, Smith and her husband, Jay Smith ’88, bought a parcel of land on the island, with the intention of building a house there. That plan never happened. That parcel was located on the Melrose Resort property, and the next year, it would file for bankruptcy and close. Building there no longer made sense.
“I finally decided that no one is doing anything. It is an endless cycle of status quo. Why don’t I see if I can get the right people in the room to make something happen?”
Laura Scheeler Smith ’90
Through the years, though, the family kept visiting the island. It was a perfect place for Smith’s two children. “We had treasure hunts. We had picnics on the beach. We explored things off the beaten path,” Smith says. “We created a lifetime of family memories on this island.”
All that time, Smith watched the resort sit unused and unwanted. Ultimately in 2020, she was moved to act and began searching for potential buyers and operators. LinkedIn became an essential tool for researching and networking, and she took calls at lunchtime, in her car, and whenever she had a free moment. She estimates she spoke to hundreds of people from around the world. She even did site tours for potential investors.
Some were dubious of her, this woman with no official connections to the resort acting as its advocate and cheerleader, but they typically were won over by her passion. “It is about believing in something so strongly and being called to do it, simply because you believe it is the right thing to do,” she says.
Inspired to Write
Eventually, a buyer and an operator for the resort arose last year, but just three days before closing, a dispute broke out about the property’s dock, a critical connection to the mainland. The county condemned the dock, and since then, the sale has been on hold. News about progress is not forthcoming. “No one is really sure what is happening,” Smith says. “It’s incredibly disappointing.”
Meanwhile, Smith continues to visit Daufuskie regularly and has bought a second parcel of land in another part of the island, with hopes to finally build a house on it. The resort and island also inspired her to write a book, a mystery novel called All Is Now Lost, that is coming out in September. The book is set on Mongin Island, a fictionalized version of Danufuskie. “The island is almost a character in the story,” says Smith, who writes under the name Laura Elizabeth.
The Melrose Resort appears in the book, though in Smith’s fictional world, it is back in operation and restored to its former glory. “You put something out in the universe,” she says, “and hope it comes to fruition.”
Posted in Entrepreneurship of All Kinds