Could We See More Canadian Courses As NLE?

I finally got around to reading my most recent issue of Golf Magazine, and found the article on the demise of Tom Doak’s Beechtree Golf Club to be the most intriguing. For one thing, the course was being turned into housing — and one has to wonder about the merits of that in the current U.S. or Canadian real estate markets. But secondly, Beechtree was, by all accounts, a really good, really popular golf course.

And it has no seen its final round.

When it opened in 1998, Beechtree Golf Club’s marriage of parkland and links styles charmed critics and public golfers alike. (“Truly sensational,” raved The Washington Times.) Doak was 37 then, and it was his creation that drew national acclaim. His firm, Renaissance Design, has since gone on to place four courses in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 in the World, including Ballyneal in Colorado and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Beechtree carried on as a respected, profitable (if not lucrative) public course.

Despite all of that, the decision was made in recent years to shut the course down:

But on December 7, 2008, it closed, only the second time a Top 100 You Can Play track has folded since this magazine began its rankings in 1996. Like its predecessor, the East course at Blue Heron Pines in New Jersey (shuttered in 2006), Beechtree will become a residential development. That’s right ” while 6 percent of American homeowners can’t pay their mortgages, the course will give way to more homes. Bulldozers will soon shred 300 acres of intricate greens, bluegrass rough and proud hardwoods to make room for 735 houses and townhouses. They’re being built in anticipation of 8,200 new jobs coming to a nearby military installation. It’s just business, says a spokesman for property owner James F. Knott Realty. The land has more value as real estate. So Beechtree will become a housing project.

So in golf terms, Beechtree will become an NLE — no longer exists.

Could this happen in Canada? Wouldn’t shock me, though I doubt it will be because courses are being turned into real estate, though that has happened around Toronto in recent years. Going forward it may happen because the real estate projects designed around a course aren’t going ahead and without houses to sell the course makes no sense. I’m already hearing about the struggles of one Toronto-area course that was scheduled to have real estate, and though I’m not sure I believe the problem extends quite as far as some suggest, it isn’t hard to imagine some real estate-based courses facing some tough decisions.

Among those that are already faced with significant issues are Humber Valley Resort in Newfoundland (which went into receivership last year and whose creditors apparently includes former Wham star Andrew Ridgely). In Ontario we saw Mystic Golf Club go bust well before the downturn (proof that a bad business model won’t work in even the best markets), and one has got to figure there’s lots of pressure on overly expensive, infrequently played projects.

Now there appears to be some project that may fail before they even open. Take, for instance, Wildstone, the much-discussed Gary Player course near Cranbrook, BC.

Consider this from a local paper in Cranbrook:

But a “soft” opening of the first golf course on the site has been pushed back until at least next summer — it was to have a soft opening this fall — and plans for phase three of the project and the second golf course have been pushed off into the future.

Joel Savage, president of Havaday Developments Inc. the company that owns Wildsight, says the full build-out of the project will probably be stretched out to 15 years instead of the 10 to 12 years originally conceived and the final number of housing units may be closer to 2,500 than 3,000. But no one knows for sure and it all depends on the market and how long the current economic storm continues, he says.

“No one anticipated this economic crisis we, and the rest of the world are going through,” says Savage. “We knew we’d have ups and downs, but to the extent this one has come so quickly and was so unforeseen, it surely has had an impact on us.”

The impact has been severe. Wildstone has closed its flashy sales office on Cranbrook Street and moved into smaller quarters in the Tamarack Mall.

Some employees have been laid off for the winter and course construction has also ceased for the season.

More to the point, Wildstone‘s owner Havaday owes money to several local creditors, investors and contractors. Savage won’t say how much, but figures circulating around town say it’s in the millions.

Talk around the Cranbrook area is that the project over reached a financial roadblock. Apparently Gary Player was

You Can Lead a Horse to Water: Gary Player tours Wildstone a couple of years ago.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water: Gary Player tours Wildstone a couple of years ago.

supposed to show up last summer — this is the only Gary Player branded golf community outside of South Africa apparently — but he didn’t make it. And that was before the slowdown in Canada. I tried to contact Havaday Developments, that were running the project, as well as Shayne Dysart, who was supposed to be managing the resort component (and formerly the GM at Board of Trade and Grand Niagara), but all voicemails were full and Dysart’s phone was disconnected. Player’s office didn’t return calls. Doesn’t exactly instill one with confidence in their multi-million dollar golf and real estate development, now does it?

The full Golf Magazine story can be found here.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I read the same article on that US course and was confused. I understand a unpopular course being demolished, but not a successful and profitable one?
    When you add the climate for resale housing in the US it becomes an even cloudier decision.
    Only reason i can see is that this may be due to the specific needs of the area. They mentioned the huge influx of people due to a new business in the area and housing close to this, so i guess it somewhat makes sense.

    I definitely see courses in canada facing the same situation. As density and expansion occurs, there are courses in prime real estate areas in demand. Why would a owner continue to operate at low profit levels when he could make a quicker buck and bigger return and move on to other ventures.
    All this makes for a sad day for the lower green fee popular courses as maybe just maybe a owner pullls the plug on his business.

  • shark & RT,

    aberdeen MD is a military town, home of the “Aberdeen Proving Grounds”. much of this housing is apparently going to be functional, useful housing for military folks – not some fancy dancy community. that said, it is still a private development, not military funded.

    i played beechtree this past july. it was a really fun, understated golf course. some of the greens were spectacular, and was a good study as a doak “coming of age” golf course (his words…). worth the trip for the 17th green alone.

  • These are financial decisions. If a golf course is worth “X” dollars, but as a real estate development it is worth “X + $1”, then there is more value to the property being a real estate development. Its sad, but true.

    Prior to the global economic collapse, I have always struggled with how Glen Abbey was not worth more as a real estate development, being located in the upscale suburbs of Oakville. To be clear, I am a huge fan of Glen Abbey and think it is a fabulous design and test of golf. Similarly, think of the land value for some other courses like St. Georges, Islington and Lambton.

    There is a lot to be said for member owned courses, as investors look for return and as their equity portfolio shrink, maybe they will look to monetize real estate holdings, to the detriment of great layouts.

  • not just great layouts, but local greenspace and the benefits that come along with that, to which many of them do not have a quantifiable “price”.

  • Member owned courses are far less likely to cash in then corporate owned courses. That’s why I could see this happening to Glen Abbey but not to St. Georges. And don’t forget that in the CofT that golf courses get a break on property taxes but if the course is sold then those taxes have to be paid. Don’t forget that this did happen to many courses decades ago. Cedar Brae 9 (nee Cedar Brook) was where Cedar Brae mall is today. Toronto Golf Club used to be located around Gerard and Woodbine, etc.

  • Do not know why this would surprise you at all RT.

    Like JDC said it is all business and golf courses are not unlike any business, If the owner can ge out with a nifty profit why not sell.

    It is all about money……unfortunately.

  • Netz: Didn’t say I was surprised.

    Wayne: Good point. Truthfully, the last time a good course disappeared in Toronto was the early 1970s when the old York Downs course became a park. However, there are examples of others, like St. Andrews, which held a couple of Canadian Opens in Toronto and was one of the first truly popular public courses in the country.

  • Don’t forget Northview or something like that. The members cashed in and all moved to the National with Gil Bleckman. I remember as the course I was working for at the time bought the irrigation system components from them.
    I think each member got $20,000.00 or so each from the deal.

  • Hi Robert,

    It’s been a while since we last spoke, I am in BC these days as your blog states working with Wildstone and their extensive project in Cranbrook, 900 acres, two Gray Player golf courses etc. We are going through tough economic times as we all know and like any project we are working closely with all parties in a proactive and positive fashion. We do have new parties involved, who are bringing more liquidity to the project and thus project is still moving forward at a good rate. Robert give me a call, my phone does work and I would enjoy sharing some very positive and new information about Wildstone. We are still in the Sales Center 250 489 2883.

    Regards Shayne Dysart, General Manager, VP Operations

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