Charting a course

World-class golf resort, education center backed by the 49ers inch closer to reality at Lake Oroville

An artist’s rendering of the entrance to Whisper Ridge Golf Resort, which will be part of the first phase of development once the project breaks ground.

An artist’s rendering of the entrance to Whisper Ridge Golf Resort, which will be part of the first phase of development once the project breaks ground.

Bill Connelly remembers when Oroville Dam was built, long before he took his oath of office as Butte County supervisor 12 years ago. Plans to dam the Feather River, which once flowed mightily through the town of Oroville and offered recreation activities from water skiing to boat regattas for those who lived there, began to take shape in the 1950s. By 1968, the tallest earthen dam in the world was completed.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan attended the dedication. “I see rising on the shores luxury hotels, places where people can enjoy themselves and where one of the greatest recreation areas in the nation will one day come into being,” he proclaimed.

A restaurant and shopping complex was promised for where the visitor center now sits, recalls Connelly, who grew up in Oroville. But since those promises of creating a recreational destination at Lake Oroville were never etched in stone—“they were written down, but never signed contractually,” Connelly explained—they never came to fruition. That’s irksome, he said. “As an elected official, we need something to offset the impact of the dam.”

That’s why Connelly has been so supportive of a plan by developers Loafer Creek LLC to build a golf resort on unincorporated land just south of the lake. The project, dubbed Whisper Ridge Golf Resort, includes a spa, three restaurants and a villa-style hotel. It would create jobs for the area, Connelly said, while also attracting tourists who would contribute to the area’s tax base.

The plans were approved by the county in a unanimous, uncontested vote three years ago, but got held up by the Army Corps of Engineers, whose approval was needed because the site includes wetlands. That hurdle was cleared a few months ago, prompting the whole ship to rev back up. And now there’s even more momentum behind it, with the addition of a companion project aimed at empowering local underserved youth.

The strange thing is, Whisper Ridge—and its accompanying Lake Wyandotte project, which crept onto the scene quietly, backed by heavy hitters—is a huge deal. A deal the likes of which this county has not seen perhaps since the dam was built. And almost no one is talking about it. But with bulldozers poised to break ground any day, excitement over the prospect is beginning to brew.

Whisper Ridge’s origins can be loosely traced back to the early 1990s, when local landowner Robert Taylor submitted plans to develop part of his unincorporated property south of Lake Oroville. He envisioned a resort, with a hotel and spa as well as residential development. He submitted what became known as the Stringtown Mountain Specific Plan to the Board of Supervisors and got all the required approvals.

Then, nothing happened—no hotel, no spa, no homes—reportedly due to lack of funds.

But the specific plan was still in place, and when Butte County drafted its General Plan 2030, staff took it into consideration. In fact, they took the principles of the Stringtown plan and expanded on them, creating an even bigger swath of land zoned for recreation and tourism.

“During the general plan process in 2010, we affirmed this area for development and specifically for a resort and additional residential development,” said Pete Calarco, assistant director of development services for the county.

That was right around the time a development group calling itself Loafer Creek LLC, comprising a few local residents and several out-of-towners, began purchasing land in Butte County. Much of it was slated for environmental protection in the form of mitigation banks, including the 2,400-acre Dove Ridge Conservation Bank and its vernal pools that contain Butte County meadowfoam, fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp. The development group attempted at one time to create a large housing development north of Chico near the Tehama County line, but that plan fizzled.

The view of Lake Oroville from what will become the clubhouse at Whisper Ridge Golf Resort.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

In all, Loafer Creek LLC bought about 22,000 acres of land, including over 850 acres abutting Taylor’s property south of Lake Oroville. So, when the county’s general plan was drafted, expanding on the Stringtown Mountain Specific Plan, their property was automatically zoned with future recreational development in mind. The groundwork, so to speak, had been laid.

“That was key in … public support of the project,” Calarco said of Whisper Ridge Golf Resort.

Indeed, when the Board of Supervisors met to discuss the environmental impact report for Whisper Ridge in 2013, there were no naysayers whatsoever. The panel approved the project unanimously.

“There was essentially no public opposition. That is virtually unheard of,” said Tim Snellings, director of development services, in a conference call with Calarco. “A project near Lake Oroville—that’s always been a vision for that area.”

(Loafer Creek LLC has always been protective of its members’ identities. It’s unclear, then, how many of them are still involved since the CN&R last wrote about the group in 2007. We do know that many of them live in the Detroit area. Steve Mardigian, of Newport Beach, is the only name we could confirm. Voicemail messages were not returned by press time.)

The plans for Whisper Ridge Golf Resort began to take shape in 2012. Loafer Creek brought on course designer David McLay Kidd, a Scotland native who made a name for himself in 1999 with the original course at Bandon Dunes on the southern Oregon coast, now a premiere golf destination. More recently, he designed the Castle Course at the world’s oldest golf complex, St. Andrews, Scotland.

Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly is still miffed that nothing ever came of promises to create a recreation destination at Lake Oroville when the dam was built nearly 50 years ago. He’s pictured at the visitor center, where a large restaurant and shopping complex was meant to go.

Photo courtesy of Meredith J. Cooper

Kidd could not be reached for comment for this story, but his website describes his philosophy when designing a course: “A golf course offers modern man the opportunity to explore his environment, experience nature first hand and interact with friends in a pursuit where competitors congratulate rather than berate one another. How can we, as golf designers, do all we can to promote these interactions?”

Turns out his philosophy is very much in line with that of Whisper Ridge.

The terrain where it will be situated is varied and wild. A rough path has been carved around what will become the route of car and cart traffic on the site. The site offers breathtaking views of Lake Oroville and the surrounding mountains as well as ridges, valleys and small lakes. The area is home to plenty of wildlife, including deer—a large portion of the Loafer Creek property has been set aside for deer roaming habitat—as well as turkeys, other birds and even a bear.

“The developers are committed to utilizing the natural features in their design and operation, thereby adding to the beauty of the area as opposed to detracting from the natural beauty,” county Economic and Community Development Manager Jennifer Macarthy said in an email.

In addition to the 18-hole course designed by Kidd, there will be a 9-hole course modeled after the par 3 course at Augusta National in Georgia, arguably the nation’s most famous golf club and home of the Masters Tournament. Designed by Clive Clark, a former pro golfer who’s created more than 30 courses, this will be the first project on the site to break ground, alongside the entryway to the resort. Other amenities include villa-style cottages, three restaurants and a full-service spa. Greens fees will be in the range of $150 per round, while a night at the resort will run $295 and higher.

“The jobs that this development will create, coupled with the positive impact the development will have on the tourism industry in general, will really make a positive impact on the Butte County economy,” Macarthy said.

Lake Wyandotte, as seen from the “vista point” labeled at the top left of the artist’s rendering.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Others agreed.

“It will create a lot of jobs,” Snellings said. “And it will bring people to the area for recreational purposes who probably would not have had Butte County on the radar.”

The first goal of the Whisper Ridge project is to create a world-class golfing destination. But Loafer Creek also wants to give back to the community. In that vein, Whisper Ridge launched an after-school program now in its third year at 19 K-12 campuses throughout Butte County. The program, through international youth organization The First Tee, teaches life skills and values through golf.

“First of all, I’m seeing that students are definitely getting more interested in golf,” said Mary Ellen Garrahy, program manager for Butte County Office of Education’s expanded learning programs. “If you don’t have parents who are interested in that sport, you may never get out on a course or even hold a golf club. So, it’s cool seeing them exposed to that. Beyond learning the basics of golf, we’re big on emphasizing being responsible, good sportsmanship, being honest, shaking hands.”

Whisper Ridge sponsors the First Tee program at those 19 campuses, most of which are in Oroville, Garrahy said. It paid for golf clubs for each of the sites as well as training sessions for teachers. This week, about 60 local students headed out, via chartered bus, to Pebble Beach Golf Links for the Nature Valley First Tee Open, which matches pro golfers with First Tee participants.

“Many of the kids, in years past, have never even seen the ocean,” Garrahy said of the field trip. “It’s a really cool experience—they go down as spectators to see what the potential is if they continue with First Tee and golf.”

This artist’s rendering shows the vision for Lake Wyandotte, which includes a large agricultural component on the left and sports—including the 49ers complex—to the right.

Local golf courses, including Sunset Hills in Chico and Table Mountain in Oroville, have hosted tournaments for First Tee golfers the past two years, Garrahy said. Part of the allure of Whisper Ridge opening is the fact that the 9-hole “wee course” is designed with young golfers in mind. It will give First Tee participants a home course, so to speak, where they can develop their game.

“We’re creating a pipeline of interest in golf among young people,” Garrahy said. “Whisper Ridge is going to be a nice course. For some people it will be difficult [to afford], but it’s meant to be really accessible for the First Tee students.”

Another element of Whisper Ridge, which is in line with The First Tee program, was conceptualized quite by accident. The Whisper Ridge developers were looking into irrigation for the property, which is served by South Feather Water & Power, and noticed nearby Lake Wyandotte, owned by the utility. They approached the company’s board with a proposal to lease the property surrounding and including the lake for use in additional youth development programs.

One thing led to another and before they knew it, they were talking with representatives from the San Francisco 49ers, who built the team’s Museum and STEM (actually, now STEAM) center, which teaches kids science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through football.

The project includes a large 49ers Museum-esque complex, accompanied by several sports fields and courts, a large agricultural component featuring an organic garden, which would supply the kitchens at Whisper Ridge, and labs focusing on everything from health to fabrication.

“Creating a venue like that and developing curriculum that includes STEM and key pieces of what’s going on in the region will really allow the kids that live here to see relevance and see real life reflected back in the things that they’re learning,” Jesse Lovejoy, director of STEM education for the 49ers, explained during a special meeting of the Butte County Board of Education in May. That meeting is available to watch on YouTube, thanks to a video editing project by Pleasant Valley High School students.

Kids in the First Tee program compete in a tournament at Table Mountain Golf Course in Oroville.

Photo courtesy of the Butte County office of Education

“What we’ve found in doing that in an informal setting, meaning not a classroom, is you get a different receptivity from kids in terms of wanting to explore those concepts,” Lovejoy continued. “If you do that right, they re-enter their classrooms, their homes, their after-school centers, their conversations with their brothers and their sisters and their friends, with a different view of what STEM is, of what those key principles are. And they start looking at what they want to be when they grow up.”

Local educators, interviewed by Pleasant Valley students after the meeting for inclusion in the video, seemed overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

“The greatest thing about this project is it will allow the children to get out into the environment—we all know kids learn by doing,” said Tim Taylor, superintendent of BCOE. “So being out there in a STEM environment up at Lake Wyandotte hosted by the 49ers can only be a win-win for all kids. Kids all throughout Northern California will really benefit.”

Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter also attended a meeting where the 49ers presented their vision for Lake Wyandotte. He came out of it fired up about the potential. When he was in school, he told the CN&R by phone, he got hands-on training in metal fabrication. Programs like that have gone by the wayside.

“I was so disappointed when schools discontinued industrial arts. America, in my eyes, is falling behind in having youth be able to run the machines,” he said. “The real benefit that I had as a child with industrial arts is it gives you an idea of how things are made. How to—say you get an idea, you come up with an invention—how to fabricate it. It gives you keys to success.

“I hope it all comes together like they’re proposing,” he added. “It would be a real benefit to our county.”

Whisper Ridge could break ground any day. A spokesman for the project said Loafer Creek LLC is in the process of selling a property in Chico and once that sale goes through, they’ll move forward with construction.

“For me, the key is, the hardest step is the first step,” Snellings said. “They’ll be designing a beautiful entry to these first nine holes. And that will be the catalyst for this whole project. We haven’t seen anything on this scale in the county since … I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a project on this scale.”

Lake Wyandotte is still in the design phase, but with backing from an organization like the San Francisco 49ers and enthusiasm from the community, those involved don’t see many roadblocks ahead.

“None of the projects we’ve worked on ever became successful without the support of the community,” said Peter Sollobug, one of the 49ers Museum architects, to the BCOE meeting attendees. “They have to start from the ground up. If you have that, it’s magic. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t happen. We’re really delighted to be part of your community.”

The support, from local educators to local government leaders, certainly seems to be there. Now it comes down to follow-through.

“It is exciting. There’s no shortage of vision for what’s possible out there,” Snellings said.