Our guest this episode is Michael Keiser Jr. who is managing the development of the Sand Valley Golf Resort in Wisconsin near Wisconsin Rapids. Michael has been involved with building and managing multiple prominent golf properties, including Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon.
Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 18:30
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WL: Can you kind of give a little idea of where the idea of the Sand Valley development came about, and about when did it all begin?
MK: Well, it started when Craig Haltom discovered the property seven or eight years ago. Craig had lived at The Home of Golf in St Andrews and was inspired to come home and find links in Wisconsin, so he and his wife took weekend hikes exploring different potential golf sites and one day they came across this property.
He knew immediately that it would make some great golf land. So, you know, a few years after he discovered it he reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in seeing the land and, I’m sure similar to his experience, within moments of walking on the property we knew it was something really special.
I mean, when he showed it to us it was covered in red pines. It had been for 80 years a red pine tree plantation, and there was no ocean as you could imagine. So for us to realize its potential we needed to bring in the Field Museum of Chicago to check out the property and report back the fact that there was an ocean. It wasn’t an ocean of water; it was an ocean of sand and flowers and grasses, an ocean called a sandbar. It didn’t exist yet on the property. It had previous to being a red pine plantation and needing to sell it. So that’s what we’ve been up to, restoring the ocean, the sandbar.
WL: So can you talk a little bit about how you and your family are uniquely qualified to handle this project and sort of give a little bit of background of what you’ve done previously?
MK: Starting in Bandon, Oregon, 1999, we opened the first of five golf courses, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. It was done by David McLay Kidd. The goal was to hopefully get six or seven thousand people there a year and the first year being managed by KemperSports and Josh Lesnik. He exceeded everybody’s expectations.
We quickly built a second course which opened two years later, Pacific Dunes. That’s when we sort of discovered the magic formula of ‘1+1=3’. One course is a curiosity and two becomes a destination. Now with the second course coming on board in the town of Inverness on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve just finished Cabot Cliffs which we’ll have a sneak preview playback summer and then open in 2016, and that brings us here.
One interesting thing that ties all the projects together is they’re really all restoration projects. We didn’t necessarily set out to do that, but every project we’ve done we’ve restored sort of an ancient, you know, habitat which is ideal for golf. At Bandon we removed the gorse and restored the natural coastal dunes. At Cabot we restored a site to dunes from a coal mine. It was a coal mine property, and here we’re removing the red pine monoculture to restore this very beautiful sandbar. So that’s really where we’ve been, and that’s what got us to Central Wisconsin.
WL: So then Michael, when you’re talking about, the key theme of this is restoration, and so what are some of the key criteria that you use to select the golf course architects, the people who will be in charge of this restoration?
MK: So we have different teams involved. We have a set of golf course architects. We have Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designing this course, and we also have restoration people involved who will work with the architects to restore the, you know, the ecosystem. So are you asking what we’re looking for in the golf architects?
WL: Yeah. Why don’t maybe we talk about, let’s stay with Sand Valley then. What drew you to Coore and Crenshaw?
MK: We knew they would be gentle with this site. I think a lot of people would be tempted to sort of blow out a lot of the smaller movements on the site and just focus on the real big dramatic dunes, but we knew they would respect what the site, you know, gave them, and they’ve absolutely done that. They’re great at working with sand. They’re great at building courses that are fun to play, so we’ve worked with Bill and Ben several times now and we just knew that they’d respect this very unique site. It’s as simple as that. We have a great site, and we knew they’d be up to the job.
WL: So then, for Sand Valley what are some of the key environmental concerns or issues that Coore and Crenshaw and your team have to deal with?
MK: You know, this is a great project because there’s, I mean, there are a few environmental issues we had to navigate early on but really it couldn’t be in worse of a state environmentally when we purchased it. It was a pine monoculture where there’s no biodiversity or really any ecosystem of significance, so everything we do to the land, starting by removing all the red pines and then reestablishing the native grasses and flowers, is a plus.
So the DNR and Fish and Wildlife have been extremely supportive because they understand that, you know, what we’re doing is bringing back all these species who have been off the property for many decades. So it’s really exciting to build a golf course but also to build, you know, the golf course might take 80 or 100 acres of turf and we have 2000 acres of property that will be restored to something that’s really rare and really beautiful. So I think the architects enjoy that, and we definitely enjoy it because we’re building, we’re reestablishing an ecosystem that hasn’t existed for 80 years.
WL: Okay. Well, then, let’s take a step a little bit further in the future. I think you’ve listed that the potential open time would be about 2017 for Sand Valley. When a course is open in winter, what’s the kind of audience that you’re trying to attract to Sand Valley?
MK: Well, you know, any pure golf enthusiast who loves to walk, you know, a Coore and Crenshaw design. I think with one course our audience really is sort of within that four hour radius. I think we’ll have a lot of Wisconsin golfers. I think we’ll get a lot of people come up from Chicago, a lot of people drive down from Minneapolis, St Paul.
You’ve got a big community in Green Bay and Madison. So I think that first course we’ll really draw in locally and in our immediate region. With that formula of ‘1+1=3’, as soon as we build and open that second golf course I think we have the potential to start drawing people from a little further outside of that radius and get people traveling in, hopefully, you know, like we saw in Bandon, from all over the country to see, you know, a site that looks and feels like anything else that we’ve done. So I think the one course is going to draw people regionally and as soon as that second golf course is up and running we hope to be a resort.
WL: Is the goal for Sand Valley to eventually host any kind of competitive tournaments, especially considering what’s happening or will be happening at Erin Hills and at Whistling Straits, is that on the forefront or are you trying to keep it more of a like sort of like a destination?
MK: Yeah. It’s not our goal with the first course or with the second course and we’re not really looking anywhere beyond our first course right now. Plus, these pros are so good that in order to challenge them you really need to make a golf course that is exceptionally difficult, and we like building courses that are challenging to, you know, to a single digit handicap but are fun to play for everybody, so the two don’t really match. Our goal is to build golf courses that are fun for the 99%, and one day we may explore doing something a little differently but we’ve had a lot of success and, more importantly, a lot of fun building courses that, you know, the average golfer can enjoy. So it’s not on our plans. We would love to host in our regional amateur tournaments and maybe even, you know, state amateur tournaments one day but the open is not something, it’s not a goal of ours from the start.
WL: You mentioned about walking the course. Will Sand Valley be walking only?
MK: It will be a walking only golf course. Like Bandon, we will have a small number of carts for people who just can’t walk, and that number is to be determined. We’re still trying to figure out that right balance. A lot of it will, you know, have to do with the grass that we choose and I’m really pushing for Fescue Fairways here and Fescue just can’t take as much car traffic as much as some of these other grasses. So it will be walking only but we’ll have carts for those people who can’t do that. We’re going to have a robust caddie program, you know, supporting caddies and that caddie experience is something that’s really important to me and to my family. We’re going to do everything we can to get as good a golf caddie program as possible.
WL: So then with this type of a property then, what are the goals or how are you hoping to use it, do you have any other ideas as far as Sand Valley during the wintertime, throughout the year? Do you have any other ideas of what you could do with the property or is it going to be closed during the wintertime?
MK: You know, in year one we’re going to close it down. Once we have that infrastructure of lodges in place we’re open to ideas but to start we want to stay focused on, you know, our core values which we know which is golf, but I could see in the future, you know, opening up a cross country trail system. You know, we’re going to have hiking and biking and horseback riding trails already on the property during the summer so we could convert those into some recreation in the winter, winter sports as well, so I could definitely see, you know, in future years trying to make this a year round destination for families to come up and enjoy the outdoors 12 months a year, but that probably won’t be the case in year one.
WL: Okay. Well let me finish up then on the business side. I have a few questions for you on that. Has it been decided, is KemperSports going to be the management company for Sand Valley or are you still investigating that?
MK: Yeah. We’ve hired them to manage the Sand Valley Resort and they will get, you know, more involved as we get closer to opening, but they’ve already been very, very helpful. We have a long relationship with them and we think they’re the best in the business. We’re excited to work with them again on this project.
WL: Will there be lodging or hotels or anything nearby Sand Valley?
MK: There will be. We’re going to open, you know, a few rooms on the property. I’m also standing at a development site about a mile from our property on beautiful Lake Petenwell, and we’re going to build a few rooms here on this stunning lake as well and then let our customers decide which they prefer. So we’re going to create a test here and see what people prefer and then expand on what the golfers and their families prefer.
WL: Okay. And then in terms of attracting golfers to the site, do you have any plans of how you’re going to promote Sand Valley or what audience you’re going to reach? You mentioned local, you know, you’ll probably get a lot of traffic from Wisconsin. Are you going to be promoting outside of the state or what’s the philosophy with that?
MK: You know, the biggest thing we’ve done to promote the golf course is to partner with the 150 founders who have helped us financially build the golf course, and they’re spread out among Minneapolis and Wisconsin and Illinois and they really are ambassadors, you know, they’re all golf fanatics who are eager to spread the word on what we’re doing here. So that’s probably the biggest push that we’re making, and besides that the, you know, the town has really taken on the leadership role in promoting what we’re doing here and they have been fabulously supportive of our project from the start and they’re also getting the word out, you know, just really informal channels. They’re excited about what we’re doing. They’re proud of their town, and they’re telling anyone who will listen what we’re up to here in their home in Wisconsin.
Sand Valley Golf Resort
15th Ave Nekoosa, WI 54457
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