Outdoors: Morris saves its golf course
By Tom Larson
ntil this spring, the Morris area had a pretty nice thing going at its Pomme de Terre Golf Club. It wasn't too many years before that the club was on the verge of extinction, with the course and clubhouse in disrepair and memberships dwindling as disgruntled golfers chose to throw their clubs in the trunk and drive to play better courses in surrounding cities.
But as the spring of 2011 approached, golfers anticipated another banner season at the refurbished, four-year-old course. A new clubhouse and a new, 18-hole track that was rounding into form after another year of seasoning had people excited about sticking around town to play the local course. Memberships were on the rise and the attractive 3,500 square foot clubhouse was drawing in events such as meetings, reunions and receptions.
Then, members received a gut-punch of a letter from the club's manager and part-owner and it seemed that those few years of burgeoning prosperity were nothing more than a mirage. The PDT seemed destined to go the way of the dinosaur after all, and the area was about to lose a gem of a golf course and a source of valuable outdoor activities and community pride.
What happened next, while not a miracle, certainly qualifies as a feel-good community success story given the tough economic times, the tenuous state of the golf industry and the monumental task at hand.
Morris saved its golf course, one public share at a time.
"It's kind of our stadium issue in Morris," said Marty Ohren, a PDT Golf Club co-operative board member of community members' spur-of-the-moment purchase of the club last spring and similarities to the Minnesota Vikings' pursuit of public funding for a new stadium. "The response has been great and it helped us save a great source of a lot of entertainment for the community."
a long history
Golf has a long history in Morris, dating back to the founding of PDT in 1923. At one time, the course, located a couple of miles southeast of the city limits, was almost country-clubby, home to the club, a fine-dining restaurant and a swimming pool.
But various calamities over the years - including a fire that destroyed the main clubhouse and restaurant - left the club on the brink of failure.
The course was becoming choked with weeds and the greens needed a lot of work. The clubhouse was little more than a large shed that looked like a ball shack for the practice range.
The previous owners brought in respected Minnesota course designer Joel Goldstrand to create 10 new holes, culminating in an 18-hole course, and blending in an adjacent housing development. But the owners fell a little short of their financing goal and sold to local businessmen, John and Joe Riley in 2006.
Improvement began immediately. Chris Leman was brought in as part owner and manager. An experienced superintendent was hired. A new fleet of golf carts was purchased. The weeds were eradicated, new cartpaths were built, trees trimmed or removed, problem areas were remade and the greens were fixed. The new Goldstrand holes, carved out of adjoining farmland, combined with the rivers, creeks and lowlands to give parts of the PDT a links course feel. Some spec houses began popping up in the new Creekside housing development.
Serving as the home base for the new club was the high-pitched roof of the clubhouse built on the edge of the 18th green that featured a spacious great room, a fully supplied pro shop and snack bar, party room facilities and a deck that overlooked the final green.
Memberships, which shrunk to 80 by 2005, increased to 140 in 2006 when the new owners took over. By the time Leman left the club this spring, he reported membership numbers at 425.
But late last winter, just as PDT's renaissance appeared to be gaining good traction, the club's future was thrown into upheaval.
Joe and John Riley received 3-1/2-year prison sentences and fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for federal tax evasion related to incidents that didn't involve the golf club. Their business, Riley Bros., was reeling from being banned from bidding on government construction projects. The Rileys needed to unload assets and PDT was one of them.
Leman announced that the club was for sale in a Feb. 22 letter to members. Nationwide, the numbers of people playing golf was falling, and a shaky economy not seen since the Depression meant there were going to be few big-time investors willing to sink money into golf courses.
The Rileys, who were long-time Morris community supporters, did their part by asking a relatively modest price of roughly $600,000. The brothers no doubt would have found willing takers at that price who may not have been interested in maintaining the property as a golf course. So they gave an ad hoc community group some time to see if it could round up support. A community meeting was scheduled at the Morris Eagles Club in March and interested people packed the room. A plan to sell shares for $1,000 apiece was floated.
"We wanted to see if there was even enough interest to go forward and we found a lot of interest," organizer Doug Stahman said at the time. "There's interest among the members and there's a lot of interest in the community."
But the Rileys couldn't wait for long, and Stahman said then that the club would be closed, just as the golf season was beginning, if a substantial offer wasn't on the table soon.
"It's not going to open if (the club members and community) don't buy it," Stahman said last spring. "It's just going to die."
Morris was now on a mission to save its golf course.
Public comes to rescue
The fact that PDT was, at one time, a publicly owned course may have generated inertia since the club's deeply rooted and rich history was still fresh to some minds. Compared to some areas of the state and nation, the economic crisis might not have been felt as harshly in agriculture-rich west central Minnesota, but people in Morris and surrounding area still knew of friends who had been laid off of their jobs, who were a part of businesses that shuttered. Saving something like a golf course - as counterintuitive as it might seem at a time when the decision facing some people was choosing between groceries and light bills - seemed to become a matter of rebellion against the status quo: Morris was going to quit losing things.
Rick Stark, a retired dentist, was a board member when PDT was a public course some 30 years before, and he served as the board president. He got involved in the co-op steering committee this time, too,
"I was familiar with the trials and tribulations of running a publicly owned golf course," Stark said. "I was impressed we were able to raise that much money, especially with the time frame involved."
The group had days, maybe weeks, to get a viable offer to the owners. They held public meetings to outline the plan and solicit offers. Members of the co-op committee wore out mobile phone batteries getting the word out and making pleas. Web sites and drop sites were set up to take $1,000-per-share pledges.
After the heady, initial appeals to save the club faded, the members shifted into collection mode, ensuring that promises became checks.
From to idea to tentative agreement took less than a month. The deal was completed about a month after that, and by mid-June a new co-op board was elected.
"Thanks to the shareholders, we were able to make a smooth transition from privately held to publicly owned," Ohren said. "It's an example of how we have to come together as a community and work together to save what we want to save, whether it's schools, everything."
Weather permitting, another new beginning
Because of family concerns, Leman stepped down as manager and left the golf business. The co-op was planning to hire a young manager, possibly right out of college, to take over the club. They were happily surprised when Tom Legate, a veteran course manager and a Class A PGA professional since 1998, applied for the job after serving for 10 years as the club manager at the North Platte Country Club in Nebraska. He got it and took over for Leman this summer.
Weather, not fits-and-starts under new ownership, set the club back at the beginning of the season, Legate said.
"We lost about six to eight weeks because of the wet conditions," Legate said. "But all-in-all, we did well. As far as I can tell, the people have been nice and they support the golf course."
Ohren said he considers the first season under co-op ownership a success.
"We broke even and that's really good considering there was no golf in April," Ohren said. "The real positive part is how the community came together and saved it. The mission hit and people donated so much of their time."
Ohren recounted stories about how volunteers would show up to help water or trim trees. Sometimes, they wouldn't tell anyone; they just unloaded their equipment and got to work.
"It's been amazing how people just stepped forward, how people went above and beyond," he said.
The club is moving from transition to full-blown promotion, Ohren said, such as a $100 flat-rate membership for youth golfers. Building up youth involvement is one priority of the new board, and the club also is working to host more tournaments and pump up league participation.
In nine months, Morris has progressed from the immediacy of having to rescue its golf course to being trained on a long-term - and hopefully prosperous -- future.
"Golf is a tough business right now with the economy the way it is," Legate said. "The support from the community has been helpful and we hope for a better year, weather-wise, next year. We have a good product, we just have to get the word out and we're definitely working on that."