Fore more

Can Chico make room for yet another golf course?

DRIVING HARD <br>Magalia residents Lee and Patty Dummel say that the grass driving range at Tuscan Ridge makes practicing easier, but business hasn’t been booming at Chico’s newest golf course.

Magalia residents Lee and Patty Dummel say that the grass driving range at Tuscan Ridge makes practicing easier, but business hasn’t been booming at Chico’s newest golf course.

Photo by Tom Angel

It takes balls: A 1998 University of Wisconsin-Madison study on golf course development found that Chico, of all places, is the 12th most-ripe city in the United States for a new golf course.

It’s peaceful enough on the tree-lined fairways at Tuscan Ridge Golf Course, gazing out over the great Sacramento Valley spread below.

On a clear day, notes co-owner Bruce Holderbien, you can see the Sutter Buttes gleaming to the south and the Coast Range rising up to the west above the pastoral valley dotted with rice fields and almond orchards. In the spring, with the wildflowers blooming in the green rolling hills around the course, it’s like a piece of heaven, he says.

To be sure, the setting is spectacular, but the course itself isn’t quite as heavenly—not yet, at least.

Tuscan Ridge, which opened quietly last summer, was supposed to be a golfer’s paradise—an 18-hole public course set in the quiet, rolling foothills between Chico and Paradise, ready made for Ridge and valley golfers alike, complete with a pro shop and snack bar. But more than a year after the course opened, what the owners (a group of eight private investors) have is substantially less than that. Only the front nine holes of the course are open, the roads that wind around the course have yet to be paved, there are no permanent bathrooms, and the whole operation is run out of a teepee-like tent store located just above the putting green.

Because the course lacks electricity, the cash register and a refrigerator (the only electric devices obvious in the tent) run on a generator. Because the generator is noisy, the place runs on batteries while the course is open.

Business “hasn’t been great,” admits Holderbien, but it’s been steady. He and co-owner Mark Brown acknowledge that their main problem is that the course isn’t finished yet. The lack of an 18-hole course, the dirt roads and scarcity of amenities keep people away, they say, but they hope to finish up the course (with a much-needed $2 million infusion of cash they’re currently waiting for) and finally realize the course’s considerable potential.

“We have a lot of people come to us and say, ‘Nice course, great to play, a lot of potential,'” Brown said. “And that’s nice but frustrating. We want to move past the potential and get it done.”

Given all the research they say they did before opening Tuscan Ridge, you’d expect that the place would be busier. Tuscan Ridge’s core investors (who each put up to $50,000 of their own money into the project) cite studies that found that the golfing market of the Chico urban area could support up to three public courses. Until last year, Bidwell Park’s course was the only public 18-hole course in town.

But business has been far from booming. And given that there are preliminary plans to build yet another 18-hole golf course in north Chico, you have to wonder: Are there really enough golfers in Chico to support the all the courses in town?

Bernie Kelley doesn’t think so.

Kelley, the former editor/ publisher of the North Valley Golf Times (which is now run by a Santa Rosa golf trade paper), pointed out that it’s “expensive, beyond expensive” simply to maintain a golf course, much less make a profit on it. He estimated that it costs a minimum of $300,000 to $400,000 annually just to properly maintain a golf course.

With numbers like that, he pointed out, a course—especially a public course, which depends on greens fees that fluctuate day to day—has to have hundreds of people playing golf every day just to break even.

“And then put your debt load on top of your overhead, and you’ve got a hard business to keep afloat,” said Kelley, who has consulted on the formation of golf courses in this country and Mexico. “That’s a lot of Canyon Oaks greens fees.”

From the looks of things, Chico’s two private courses are doing fabulously. Al Farboud, manager of Chico’s exclusive Butte Creek Country Club, said that membership is “pretty maxed out.” All 385 members of the country club paid at least $14,500 to own a piece of the club—and, with monthly dues, for a lifetime’s worth of golf.

That same optimism can be found at Canyon Oaks Country Club, where memberships (at about $15,000 a pop) are holding firm. But Kelley points out that it’s easier to operate a private course than a public one, especially a private course that operates partially on fees from the course’s surrounding homeowners, as is the case at Canyon Oaks.

“The most successful golf courses really don’t make money on golf itself,” Kelley said. “They make money on golf ‘stuff,’ from the restaurants, homeowners’ fees and stores they have.”

The developers of Ralph’s Ranch, a 450-acre subdivision at the corner of Highway 99 and Meridian Road that would include an 18-hole golf course, didn’t return phone calls asking about the wisdom of building another golf course in Chico, but the project is already in county planners’ hands. Livermore landowner William Ralph and local development consultant Jim Mann, of Rural Consulting Associates, are organizing it. Documents on the project filed with the county indicate that they expect to develop the subdivision—and the golf course—over the next five to 10 years.

For now, at least, Brown and Holderbien, who are both engineers by trade, doubt that the development of a new golf course in north Chico will affect them much. They point out that the course will be clear on the other side of town, and that the golfing experience there will be far different than the one they offer.

“The views here are beautiful,” Holderbien said. “Playing golf at the corner of 99 and Anita [Road] won’t have the same attraction.”

However, Lance Fong, Bidwell Park Golf Course general manager, said that “any development will tend to squeeze the market some.” He doubts, though, that Bidwell will ever struggle financially the way Tuscan Ridge seems to be doing.

“We’re definitely moving forward,” Fong said. “We’re doing better than last year, that’s for sure.”

But golfing, Fong acknowledged, is not an inexpensive hobby. He estimated that a new hobby golfer could expect to invest, at the low end, $200 to $300 in an inexpensive set of clubs and related equipment to start out.

But Kelley, noting the forecasted growth and relative wealth of the Chico area, predicts that Tuscan Ridge will eventually prosper, if it can hold on long enough to finish building the course’s back nine and store. But that’s the question—can it? Holderbien and Brown said they will.

“We’re eeking it out," Holderbien said. "We didn’t go into this business to become millionaires. It’s just nice that we can come here to play golf when we want and make a decent living on it."