PENDLETON, Ore. – Thirteen years ago, when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation first opened its 18-hole Wildhorse Resort & Casino Golf Course nestled in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, tribal leaders were riding the crest of an Indian country wave that had many trying to appeal to casino customers beyond gaming.
Appeal Wildhorse did, ultimately ushering in thousands of visitors, reaping accolades and getting many Native families involved with the game for the first time. But in today’s economic climate, past performance is no guarantee for continued success.
Sean A. Hoolehan, the golf superintendent at Wildhorse and former president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said the golf business in general has flatlined nationwide. Not only is attendance off peak from a few years back, but finances are tighter for many tribes that built courses during the height of the craze.
Photo courtesy Wildhorse Golf Course
Sean Hoolehan, golf superintendent of Wildhorse Golf Course and former president of Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said attendance is off peak from a few years back, but that isn’t stopping tribes from opening golf courses to expand destination operations. Wildhorse is owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“We’re doing okay, and that’s where the majority of the market is at right now,” Hoolehan said.
Okay appears to be good enough for some tribal leaders who are continuing with plans to build golf projects to help make their properties more competitive and resort-like. Despite a closed tribal golf course, or two, nationwide, plus scattered hold ups in construction, some tribes are still building or thinking about it, according to industry experts.
Designers, consultants and tribal tourism experts are encouraging the growth, but said there are many sand traps to navigate, especially in today’s rough economy.
Paul Albanese, a principal with the Albanese & Lutzke course design firm, said one of the realities of the current downturn is that tribes should be getting more bang for their buck now, as opposed to in years past, largely because many golf design firms have felt the slow down, too.
In other words, work is scarcer in years past for many firms – even some high-profile ones – so they are willing to spend more time tinkering, and more time making a quality project.
“The thing about the tribal courses. … they all will, most likely, have a golf course built some day, as it really does add to the ‘destination’ effect of the resort,” Albanese said. “So, if they know this is a reality for the future, then building in the near future would not be a bad idea, because it is really a buyer’s market for golf development.”
But that doesn’t mean Albanese thinks just any design firm would be a good fit for any tribe. In current economic times, he said tribes should be exploring what he calls value-oriented firms, which focus on providing the best value to golfers. Such courses are usually much less expensive to create than those that cater to intense golf professionals.
“Golfers today really just want a good, solid golf course that they know has been thought about from their perspective – not just from the back tees for a PGA event,” Albanese said.
“Most of the architects in the American Society of Golf Course Architects are not well-known names, but all of us in that group know – probably better than anyone in the world – know how to create quality, value-driven golf projects.”
Hoolehan also recommended that tribes look into working with architects who belong to the ASGCA.
“Generally, they’re going to do a good job,” said the longtime course manager, noting that John Steidel, a designer out of Washington state who belongs to the group, conceived the Wildhorse course design, which includes four sets of tees.
Albanese said he thinks it’s going to be more common to see tribes looking to work with mid-level firms, such as his own – whereas in the past, some only sought out the most high-end partnerships they could afford.
To support his claim, he pointed out that his own firm is currently working with a tribe in Nebraska on a new golf venture. And this past July, the firm ushered in the opening of another of its tribal golf design marvels – the Sweetgrass Golf Club of the Hannahville Potawatomi Tribe in Michigan.
Gene Bates, of the Bates Golf Design Group, acknowledged that the tribal market for his company’s brand of expertise has waned in the current era. Times are a bit different, he said, than when his firm was commissioned by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho to conceptualize the acclaimed and now famous Circling Raven Golf Course, which opened in 2004.
“It’s a bit quiet at the moment. In general, gaming is down significantly; therefore total revenues are down at many tribal operations. I’m not surprised that some tribes are being more frugal.”
Still, it’s not as if all of Bates’ tribal work has disappeared. In fact, his firm is currently working with the Squaxin Island Tribe in developing a course to accompany its Little Creek Casino in Washington state.
Bates said tribes should not altogether rule out working with high-end firms. He said good deals are out there, adding that tribal leaders should not be hesitant to negotiate specials with reputable firms. Along those lines, his own firm has put in place tiered options to help curb costs.
Most experts interviewed for this article said tribes that choose to pursue courses must still deal with the same financial realities they would normally have had to face. Namely, they have to be able to secure financing, which has traditionally come by working with Native American-focused financial programs, like those offered through Bank of America and other large banks.
Tribes that don’t go the finance route will have to fund projects out of pocket, or depend on current and future casino revenue. Depending on the type of firm a tribe chooses to go with and the quality of course it wishes to pursue, projects can range anywhere from the low millions to the multi-millions of dollars to complete.
No matter what the economic climate, tribal course experts said that a solid business plan is necessary.
“Tribes definitely need to be cautious and not just jump into things,” said Bates, who noted that the Squaxin Island Tribe strategically built out many of its other economic development operations before it chose to go forward with his firm this spring.
“It’s wise to be prudent no matter what the economy looks like at the moment.”