The chief executive officer of the consulting firm studying Northwood Golf Course attended a city of Rhinelander golf course advisory committee meeting last week to offer an update on the project and to make a request.
Matt McIntee of Green Golf Partners is expected to present recommendations next month on what steps the city can take to turn around the struggling facility.
He attended the committee's Oct. 3 meeting to seek permission to use the course's database to survey the over 4,000 people who have played there. He said he wants their opinions and suggestions on how Northwood can be improved.
One thing McIntee continually stressed in his remarks is that the city of Rhinelander is not unique in having financial problems with its municipal golf course.
"John Irving always said if you want a lifetime of pain and suffering, take up golf," McIntee said. "And in some respects, he was probably right. Certainly from the business perspective, he was."
McIntee grew up in Land O' Lakes, got his start in the industry at the Gateway Golf Club and still owns property north of Land O' Lakes. He said he knows many of the golfers and golf course operators in both northern Wisconsin and the U.P.
"When this opportunity (to do the study) was presented, I do know about the golfing business, it's something and I felt that this is something, as a company, that we should offer our services," McIntee said. "Because I do care dearly about this part of the world and I have played a bit on the golf course that you do have. I played it when it first opened and the clubhouse was in the maintenance barn. The golf course still has a very good reputation."
He said the committee hired Green Golf Partners to accomplish three objectives: Look at the current management practices to see if they should be altered to achieve a positive financial impact, review and discuss the possibility of some kind of third party management arrangement and to also examine what local economic impact selling the course might have.
"To that end, we've gone full speed and the first step was an internal review of golf course operations, which is really the business of golf," McIntee said. "As a long-time owner of golf courses and as a developer and operator, this is a business first and foremost. If it's run right, the patrons of a golf course usually treasure it. If it's not run right, it's just a simple matter of economics. Things are not balanced, somebody usually feels the pain somewhere. In your case, you've had some losses that you've had to subsidize. There's some community residents that play a golf course that have also articulated their thoughts that things aren't as good as they used to be. But the bottom line is, it is a golf business, and that is what we looked at."
As part of the study, McIntee said he worked with a successful regional golf course broker to put together a broker's opinion of the value of Northwood.
"We should have that tied up in the next week," McIntee said.
McIntee also said the company has already done quite a bit of study of the surrounding market and the economic effects that other golf courses are experiencing.
"Quite frankly, there is another golf course that is not too far from experiencing what you have been experiencing. The most prominent of which would be to the northeast, George Young Recreational Complex," McIntee said. "They are in the process of completely restructuring their management and they have hired someone from downstate Michigan to conduct a thorough review of everything they've done. I've spoken to them, I've spoken to their board members to try to get a sense of what they are trying to do there, to get a feel of where they're at. They're losing money, they're losing money every year and they might try to create some of their own patrons by looking at creating a resort."
One thing working against Northwood is there isn't a significant influx of new patrons coming to play the course, he noted.
"You have a fairly well-defined market share that people (other courses) fight for," McIntee said.
In comparison, Eagle River has a stronger local tourism market that brings a steady stream of potential new customers for its golf course every year. He also noted Watersmeet has a casino that helps attract golfers.
"You all, in my opinion, have the best golf course," McIntee said.
He said the company would like to conduct a survey of the patrons as part of their study to get a feel for how the customers view the course. This survey would be conducted using the email addresses in the course's database and it would be sent from the golf course, not the company.
"It's really essentially something we do everywhere, at our own properties, and a lot of folks that we consult for," McIntee said.
He also said he would like to conduct an anonymous survey of the members of the advisory committee to get feedback on a number of issues.
"That will give me a better sense of the landscape of what you're doing, because ultimately the decision that will be made in the end is your decision not ours," McIntee said. "And I think you need to recognize that you have a very nice asset and it is one of the assets in this particular area that draws people, and in some ways it employes people."
He said the problems Rhinelander is facing with Northwood are complex but not unique.
"In the United States, there are over 4,000 municipal golf courses, and of those golf courses the vast majority of them are subsidized on the part of the municipality with the intention to provide a recreational amenity to the residents at a fair price," McIntee said. "And the reason they choose to do that is because they have more financial bandwidth than the individuals who buy. There are a number of golf courses in this state that have gone bankrupt, and when that happens, that has a significant effect on not only the actual golf course and the patrons of the golf course, but it can have an effect on the local economy and the employees."
"I would love to be able to tell you that there is a right or wrong decision, but there is not," he added. "Because the golf business is tough right now and you have to decide what you think. We always recommend when we deal with municipalities that they proceed in a manner that is most consistent with what is in the best interests of all the residents of their municipality, not just the golfers."
In answer to a question from alderman Steve Sauer, McIntee said the results of the survey would be public record, but the survey would be conducted anonymously so no identifying information would be included.
Another question McIntee was asked was how many golf courses have food service, but not a full service restaurant such as Mulligan's at Northwood.
"I don't have a single golf course that I am currently part of or the 110 that I was previously a part of that didn't have a food and beverage component," McIntee said. "Not all of them have restaurants. So we have taken a look at your business, and (operator) Dave (O'Melia) was very forthcoming... We'll look at it, we'll look at the local market. I'm not sure that it should be - we're not done - but I don't know if that is a restaurant as much as it should be more of a bar and grill and structured slightly differently."
O'Melia said he came close to going the bar and grill route this spring, prior to opening for the season, and looks forward to seeing what the report recommends.
McIntee said a lot of what makes a restaurant at a golf course successful is understanding the local demographics and being able to compete effectively with other restaurants in the area.
"It's a wonderful building, it's a great space, our team has kicked around ideas. There's some enthusiasm for the space and how it could be utilized," McIntee said. "But he (O'Melia) also faces a challenge, it's a tough business. You not only have to be able to connect with the golfers; it's a symbiotic relationship between the restaurant and the golf course that has to be maximized. And you have to be able to go beyond the boundaries of that to get other people in there."
Not having any type of food and beverage service would be a liability because golfers want some form of beverage in the hot weather of the summer, he added.
"The beverage carts can be an absolutely wonderful profit centers. And there is something about that you have to think of in terms of retention of your guests. Providing services and right-sizing that service to the patrons is part of the process of retaining them," McIntee said. "We've done it where the most robust food offering would be a hot dog roll. It is all about the business and understanding what is best for that business. And make no mistake about it, people talk all the time about golf being a sport, it is. But it is a business and unless you run it right you end up in rooms like this trying to figure out how to change to deal with a product that nobody is happy with. So it's got to be run right."
McIntee suggested some decisions, such as fixing the bunkers that course superintendent Joe Andersen has agonized over recently, should be deferred. He cited nearby Timber Ridge where the bunkers are in worse shape then Northwoods and where the greens fees are higher.
"They aren't going to invest a penny in them right now," McIntee observed. "Up here, everyone has a blemish, it's just managing the blemish in such a way that it is sustainable, long-term."
When asked how he believes the greens fees, cart rental and membership prices of Northwood stack up against other courses in the area, McIntee said he felt Rhinelander's course is competitive with its neighbors.
"We kicked around if there is something you could do that is more resident-focused, more affordable structure," McIntee said. "You're definitely in the ballpark."
McIntee said the one handicap Northwood has is it is by far the hardest golf course in the area and it might not draw the older golfers. He said things could be done to make the course easier to play, such as removing trees and other things, but that would cost money to accomplish. It could also take away from the character of the course, which McIntee said is a "textbook case" of what a Northwoods golf course should look like.
He said Northwood will have to find ways to diversify from strictly golf, which is a warm weather activity, to include such things as simulators that could allow for winter leagues or other programming that would bring in more revenue.
"I think you have to think of it as more than a golf course," McIntee said. "You have to think of it as we have this great asset, can we use it in the winter, can we use the clubhouse for other stuff than just golfers. One of the things you have to realize about golf is if you solely focus just on golf, that single part of the business is really hard right now. So one of the things we try to do with our projects is try to make it more than just golf, we really do."
McIntee will present his final report to the committee at its Nov. 7 meeting, which will be held roughly two-hours earlier to accommodate not only the presentation but an anticipated question-and-answer period afterward.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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