It is definitely in the top 5 golf courses I have ever played and so when I heard that it was rescued from receivership by Newmark Group, a real estate development and construction company in BC and Alberta, I was overjoyed. But I was also wondering if the developer, who had never owned a golf course before, really understood what it was getting into.
The golf industry is flat at best, even though the golf economy is supposedly “out of the rough” according to the National Golf & Resort Properties Group. I find that hard to believe given that more golf courses closed than opened in 2013 for the 8th straight year.
And in Canada, the sport has not been immune to the plague of aging players leaving the sport with no indication of the younger generation ever stepping into their FootJoys.
So I decided to ask Newmark what prompted the purchase and what the future would hold for the course and region. Here’s an excerpt of my recent interview with Nathan Schauerte, Chief Operating Officer of Newmark Group.
Why would Newmark, a company that’s never invested in golf before, decide to do it now when so many golf courses in North America are struggling?
Our focus for Sagebrush is to look at the holistic picture of the entire development, not just golf. While Sagebrush does have a great golf course that offers an extraordinary golfing experience, what it hasn’t had thus far is a good clubhouse, the ability to host weddings, anniversaries and corporate events.
What we’re really looking at is developing the next stage of Sagebrush, which would be the clubhouse, expanded badlands areas, and development of all the surrounding homes. Those thirty odd lots that are around the course today have been sitting dormant and never really marketed.
Who’s your target market for those 30 lots?
There’s so many ways to market those properties. You can chase the population that wants to build their summer home there, or a big house on lots that range from two to five acres. Other folks might want to purchase a share in a portion of a house. We haven’t finalized our plans in this area, but there are lots of options we’re considering.
With less than 8,000 residents, Merritt isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis; how do you plan to attract visitors and buyers?
Sagebrush is less than three hours from downtown Vancouver. You have direct flights from Calgary to Kamloops which is an hour and forty five minutes away. People travel into all the different valleys in British Columbia where they have summer homes. Look at areas like Invermere [a population of 4,000 that grows to 40,000 on summer weekends] or Predator Ridge. People flock there because of development, because of sustainability, and because of the overall experience that they enjoy there.
We’re looking to create that same attraction at Sagebrush. It will continue to offer exceptional golf, but also a clubhouse and amenities that offer something for more than just golfers.
What we’re seeing is a lot of requests for weddings and from groups for different kinds of events, celebrations, parties and anniversaries — people who want to go somewhere, sign up for an experience, have the weekend or a few days, whatever it may be, and then leave.
Nicola Lake is right there and provides access to all kinds of water sports, including fly fishing. We plan on working with the associated ranches that have world-class fishing on them, plus hunting, horseback riding and more.
These attractions historically have always been there to a degree, but they haven’t been crafted and marketed. We plan to change that.
What is Sagebrush going to do to attract more females and the Y generation?
We plan to build more around the golf course and offer a broader experience for women, families and millennials. When we look at the culture and the different groups we want to attract, it’s not about the smoking room and leather recliners, where the guys can sit and compare golf shots. It’s about everyone finding activities that fit their interests; we want everyone to find their place in the Sagebrush experience.
What are the plans for the golf course to make it more of a money maker? Today it only hosts ~60 players a day.
Obviously we want to see more players; we’d love to see more members and more corporate members. Given its location, I don’t think we’ll ever get high numbers of rounds per day, like local courses in the greater Vancouver region or Calgary. We want to see it busier, but we also want to see it maintain its unique minimalist golf experience and be part of the full package we plan to offer visitors and residents.
What we don’t want to do is trample the course, and then have the course diminish in what it is, just because we’re ramming people through it.
In the development of the surrounding properties we’ll be very careful not to interrupt the course or the play experience. We’ll be very cautious about how we place guest cottages and homes on the property.
We want everyone to enjoy the experience first and foremost and come back for more of it. We have some ideas around how to increase play, considering the course and considering how the wear would be on the course. We’re kind of feeling that one out.
What about green fee pricing?
We’re working on strategizing what the green fees should be, how do we attract people, what’s our marketing approach and what demographics. Rather than focus on 10%, how do we focus on 40%? Those are all things we’re working through right now. We have intentions to spend quite a bit of time on those to make sure we do it right, and we hit the mark coming out.
Any closing remarks?
We’re very excited to be moving forward, to be part of the Valley, bringing new jobs to the community and marketing its unique value proposition to tourists and prospect residents.
We envision this to be a long term position, a long term product and a big part of what Newmark is all about.
With the deal having closed just recently, I’m not too surprised that there is still work needed in the long term development and marketing strategies, but I think Newmark Group may be on the right track. Sagebrush has got to be more than a golf destination to be successful.
Creating an “experience” that fulfills the needs of a mixed demographic won’t be easy, but it’s good that Newmark isn’t looking to market to “the core golfer” which is a dying breed.
Meet me back here next spring/summer after I’ve played it again and checked out the pro shop and expanded Badlands Patio & Grill. In 2016 I’ll return to Sagebrush to explore the new clubhouse and other amenities the resort has to offer. I looking to find that Sagebrush is still how golf was meant to be played, but also a whole lot more!