Originally published in Business Digest, May 1998

Golf course construction in full swing

by Craig C. Bailey

Many warm weather states have reputations for being golfers’ havens. But when it comes to golfers per capita, few can match Vermont, which ranks number three in the nation. Not a single sunny southern seaside peninsula can boast more residents who hit the links than the Green Mountain State. It’s ironic considering our comparatively short season of 20 weeks. (Minnesota and North Dakota take top honors, though which one is home to more golfers depends on whom one asks.)

As growing interest among women, minorities and young people, fuels an increasing demand for rounds — one estimate has the golf market more than doubling by the year 2000 to $40 billion nationwide — Vermont entrepreneurs are responding by climbing the sometimes slippery slopes of financing and permitting to build more courses. Elsewhere established Vermont clubs expand their offerings.

Peter Beck is a golf course consultant and Stowe selectman who estimates there are a dozen new golf courses in some stage of construction across the state, perhaps 80 percent of which will come to fruition. “It’s a daunting enterprise. The single biggest problem is finance — getting the money, and paying it back,” he chuckles. “Twenty weeks is a season. Unfortunately, mortgage payments go 52 weeks.”

Beck, who speculates he has probably played nearly every course in the state, is a Burlington native who has worked as a high school principal and an executive with a medical electronics company. He spent five years with his brother operating a golf course in western Massachusetts until 1994. Recently, he’s been working to finance a Barre project that would convert the last working farm within city limits into the Bisson Farm Golf Course, sporting a nearly 300 degree vista of Barre City and the Green Mountain Range. “We need some investment to continue along with Act 250,” he says. “We’ve got high hopes.”

The process for any would-be golf course developer can be easy or hard, according to Ben Hale of Waitsfield. “It all depends on the site,” he offers. “Sometimes these guys get harangued in Act 250.”

Hale, along with Heinz Valenta of South Burlington, publishes Vermont Golf, an annual magazine established eight years ago. The business has grown into the largest regional golf publishing company north of the Carolinas with the addition of sister publications New Hampshire Golf and New York Golf.

Hale says the company’s South Main Street, Waterbury, office constantly receives requests for advice from people considering purchasing or building courses. “Golf is about the fasting growing sport in the world,” he says, crediting an easy passage through the permitting process for the Cedar Knoll facility in Hinesburg as sparking a multitude of people considering construction in Vermont to step up to the tee in recent years.

Increasingly Vermont ski areas are realizing the benefits of golf as a natural complement to the state’s snow season, with some inns doing more business in the summer than the winter, according to Hale. Vermont resorts might inflate the average greens fees statewide — to an average of $65 with cart, compared to $30 in New Hampshire by Hale’s estimate — but there is a payoff. “The quality of golf here blows away New Hampshire,” Hale boasts, adding that many courses in New Hampshire and upstate New York fall into the “mom and pop” category. “Here golf is incredibly driven by tourism,” he says.

“We’re not trying to lure the tourists like some of the newer courses,” says Guy Alderdice Sr. of Westford, who hopes the 18-hole public course he began constructing on the North Ferrisburg/Charlotte town line July 24, 1997, will be designed and priced to appeal to locals.

Alderdice, a 46-year-old technology coordinator at Charlotte Central School, was inspired a couple of years ago while golfing with his son, Guy Alderdice Jr., a then-senior in Champlain College’s four-year business management program. “We noticed the increase in golf popularity in Vermont, and the fact that it’s so difficult to play in Vermont now,” the elder Alderdice says. “The supply has not kept up with demand.”

His son’s idea to construct a course developed into his business thesis at Champlain before becoming the business plan for the Lewis Creek Golf Club. When it came time for funding, the senior Alderdice worked with the Vermont Banking and Securities Division to take advantage of a recent state program that allows for private stock offerings. “Our total budget was only $1.7 million,” he says, “but I didn’t really have enough on my own to finish it in a reasonable amount of time.”

The course has sold 36 shares of its allotted 100, raising $180,000 from Vermont investors mostly from the Charlotte area. Alderdice continues to search for investors, and is focusing on finding a partner to purchase 40 percent of the project, which would allow him to end the stock offering and accelerate construction. “It’s been popular,” he says of the stock, which he estimates will pay an annual dividend of $1,000 to $2,500 per share in addition to free golf, “but we definitely need to get more people.”

In addition to finding funds, construction can be slowed by Vermont’s seasons, which limit required wetlands and historic preservation work to the summer. “The permit process has been more difficult than the construction,” Alderdice offers. “I understand why there aren’t many golf courses in Vermont!” He hopes to open the first nine holes at Lewis Creek on June 1, 1999, and the second nine by August.

With Vermont investors chipping in, and stepson Scott Green’s name on the Lewis Creek business proposal, it’s clear Alderdice intends to make his club a local affair. He plans to keep controlling interest in the course, while putting the talent and experience found in his family to work at the facility: Guy Jr. expects to turn pro and act as the club’s resident professional; Green will put his retail sports experience into play as a manager; and wife Debra Alderdice will employ her plant and soil science degree as superintendent.

Furthermore, Alderdice hopes to strike a cooperative chord with other area courses by offering half-price memberships for members of other Vermont clubs. “Look at Myrtle Beach,” he says, citing package plans that offer play at several courses. “It’s not just good for the local golf courses, but it’s good for the economy.”

He’s found more advice among area superintendents than course owners. “Financial information is highly confidential to golf course owners,” reads the club’s business proposal, which Alderdice published on the World Wide Web. “The owners,” he says, “have been a little hard to get hold of,” though he admits he hasn’t focused his efforts in that direction.

Ownership at the Vermont National Golf Club at 1227 Dorset St., near Swift Street in South Burlington, changed hands within the past couple of months to general contractor/developer Jim McDonald of Lyndon Center. Construction manager John Magnus of Waterbury says he expects the front nine at the new course to open in early June, with the back nine coming online by Labor Day. “A lot of this is pretty weather-dependent,” he says. “We’re hopeful. The course came through the winter pretty well.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest in the project both from a golf and a residential standpoint,” he adds, referring to the significant residential development that will include 190 single-family homes and 40 condominium units. Beck says many out-of-state courses are finding the sale of real estate to be a lucrative method of financing, though Vermont developments have been slow to follow suit. He adds that the Bisson Farm project in Barre is also a prime candidate for on-site condos.

The $13 million Vermont National project has been newsworthy for two reasons. In addition to the financial woes that led to the development’s being turned over to McDonald, the project has ties to one of the biggest golf stars in the world, Jack Nicklaus, who walked the course last year. Nicklaus Design and Paragon Construction International Inc., both of North Palm Beach, Fla., are the course designers, with landscape design by ArborTech Inc. of Colchester.

Jay Wiley, ArborTech’s president and founder, gives the Nicklaus team high marks for its work. “I’ve never worked on a project that had a higher level of professionalism,” he states. “From the folks here — Jim McDonald and John Magnus — but also specifically the Golden Bear people.

“It was really amazing to me to see their designer right on the site every single day,” he emphasizes. “And when they came across a feature that they could make part of the course, they redesigned it right then and there.” The facility will be the only Nicklaus-designed course in New England. Nicklaus Design’s “under construction” list also includes facilities in a dozen countries as far-reaching as Australia, Japan and Mexico.

The Vermont National job, ArborTech’s first major golf course effort, came as a pleasant 20th anniversary treat for Wiley, who presented his design for the front nine to the Nicklaus team in Florida to nab the job. “They were planning, I think, to interview some other people. I presented my ideas, and they stopped the process right there and put me on board,” he says. “It was just the nicest thing that ever happened to me.”

“The golf course is actually very technical in nature, both from a landscaping and drainage nature,” offers Magnus. So technical, in fact, that there are businesses that specialize entirely in golf course construction.

ASL Golf Course Construction in Waitsfield is a division of Ottawa, Ontario’s, Agrodrain Systems Ltd., a 25-year-old agricultural drainage company. “The business has definitely been accelerating” as a response to demand for rounds, says ASL representative/project manager Jim Despres, a former superintendent at Marble Island Resort in Colchester.

The company, which Despres says employs up to 30 people in Vermont when it is involved with a project, has been instrumental in the Country Club of Vermont, a private course being built a mile and a half north of I-89 off exit 10 in Waterbury. “It’s on a gorgeous piece of high plateau ground,” says William Nelson of Stowe, president of the 13-member board of directors and a founder of the club, which is expected to open nine holes in early- to mid-May and the other nine by the end of August.

Nelson, a North Carolina native and former executive with Scott paper towel company in Philadelphia, says 50 founders pooled a little more than $1.5 million to purchase the land from the Waterbury Land Co., hire the architecture firm (Graham Cooke & Associates in Montreal), design the course and take it through the permitting process. Construction began last summer. Larry Startzel, a pro at the Stowe Country Club some 20 years ago, will be the general manager and professional. Michael Keohan has signed on as superintendent.

The founders considered approximately 20 properties within a 15-mile radius before making their choice. “We think we’re going to really present something to this part of Vermont which it hasn’t seen before,” Nelson says, who is quick to add he’s a golfer himself. “I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t,” he jokes. “It’s not that much of a love fest! It’s been a lot of work.”

The Country Club of Vermont started accepting members last year, and has already filled 40 percent of its 260 vacancies. Nelson says some public play will also be available.

“The public’s perception of the project was very positive,” he says. With alternate projects like industrial parks and trailer parks contending for the land, Nelson says, “I think the public is very happy we are here.”

Still, golf courses are not always welcomed with open arms. The most common concern, according to Beck, is that golf courses pollute the environment — a misperception that’s slowly changing as the industry devotes more energy educating the public. Beck and Hale contend farms typically introduce more contaminants into the environment than golf courses, which are heavily regulated by the state. “Most farm operations use 10 times the chemicals than even a normal golf course uses,” echoes Alderdice. Furthermore, with most materials applied in granular form and organic maintenance practices all the rage, greens today are safer than ever. “If you get caught using the wrong pesticides there’re all sorts of fines,” according to Hale. “They could actually shut you down.”

Alderdice plans on taking an entirely organic approach to maintaining Lewis Creek, a fact that he, ironically, has chosen to under-promote. “I’ve had some static about it,” he laughs, “especially from the chemical companies.

“Once you start using pesticides, it is very difficult to stop. I think the courses that start off without using pesticides are going to be the ones that can sustain it,” he speculates. “The ones that have been using chemicals for years — they’re going to have a tough time.”

In addition to new course construction in South Burlington, Waterbury and North Ferrisburg, courses are in various stages of development in Moretown, Williston and Milton. “As the new courses sprout up, the older ones are planning renovations so they don’t lose marketshare,” according to Despres. By mid-May, Cedar Knoll Country Club in Hinesburg is expected to add another nine holes to its 18-hole course. Over at the Burlington Country Club, a 525-member non-profit organization on South Prospect Street, the course is closed, but expected to open in early August after shutting down for extensive renovations last August.

Chris Dunn, a member of the club’s volunteer board of directors and co-chairman of the green committee, explains the 74-year-old course suffered from poor drainage, which limited play and encouraged pests. Also: “The course wasn’t designed for the number of rounds of golf that we were having a year,” he says. “We’d had some problems with people getting hit with golf balls.”

In 1990, the country club hired Michael Hurdzan, a renowned golf course architect from Columbus, Ohio, who attended UVM, to redesign the layout, though it took several years for the project to move ahead. “It’s a real emotional thing,” according to Dunn, principal of 14-year-old landscape architectural firm Dunn Associates in Burlington. Dunn, who estimates he put 30 hours a week into the construction project last year, explains the course was designed by Donald Ross (1872-1948), a Scotsman who moved to Pinehurst, N.C., and “was probably one of the most famous golf course architects.” Throughout his career, Ross designed 413 courses.

“It also entails quite a bit of money,” Dunn adds. The renovations ran the club approximately $800,000, with $25,000 spent on special sifted sand shipped from Canada. The money the club borrowed will be paid back through assessments charged to the members and an increased initiation fee for new members.

In the end the game will be considerably more sweet at the Burlington Country Club. Combined with other developments across the state, there’s never been a better time to hit the green in the Green Mountain State.