Getting Away

Northern Michigan resorts haven’t slowed down, with new courses, rental cottages, hotels, and restaurants ready for action.
Harbor Shores Golf Club
Courtesy of Harbor Shores

Before the coronavirus pandemic upended life in the country, the 2020 golf and tourism season in Michigan was shaping up to be a repeat of the previous year’s record-breaking performance. 

From Traverse City across the state to Gaylord, early indicators in the first several months of the year — from airline bookings to golf course and resort reservations, and hotel and restaurant openings — signaled that northern Michigan’s hospitality business is primed for a rolling start to the coming summer season.

A new 10-hole, par-3 golf course, the Hilltop, along with new cottages geared to golfers or large families and a massive two-acre putting course, are ready to welcome visitors to the Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon.

In Gaylord, Barry Owens, general manager of Treetops Resort, reports room bookings into mid-March rose 14 percent over the same period last year. He notes that the all-season ski and golf resort recorded its best year ever in 2019.

The good times of the past three years are reflected in the mushrooming of hotel rooms in Gaylord. Two years ago, the Alpine-themed community welcomed two new hotel properties: Fairfield Inn and Suites, and Holiday Inn Express and Suites. This season, a 92-room Tru by Hilton hotel is set to open off the city’s main thoroughfare along M-32, just west of I-75.

A fourth new hotel, a $9-million, 87-room Comfort Inn and Suites that will have Gaylord’s first extended stay component, is going up on Wisconsin Avenue on the east side of I-75, filling out the cluster of accommodations available to visitors just off the freeway at Exit 282.

It won’t only be great for the kids and families, it will be a lot of fun for everybody.

— Lew Thompson, Owner of Forest Dunes

The new hotels will bring the number of available rooms in the city to 1,320, according to Paul Beachnau, director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau. He says the restaurant scene, feeding off the explosion of hotel rooms, has a new attraction this season with the opening of a Lucky’s Steakhouse, a family-owned chain whose flagship restaurant opened in Davison in 1998. The Gaylord restaurant will be the eighth in the group founded by Greek-Americans Lucky and Alicia Vasilakis.

Less than an hour south of Gaylord, the early headline in state golf comes from Forest Dunes, where owner Lew Thompson’s 8-year-old and 12-year-old grandsons are credited by their grandfather as the impetus behind his decision to commission building the Hilltop short course.

On a visit to the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina early last year, Thompson played the legendary golf club’s nine-hole, par-3 course, The Cradle, and liked it so much he played it again, taking note of how much fun players of all ages and skill, including kids, were having with the layout. He decided that building a similar course at Forest Dunes would not only be good for business, but it would also help him scratch an itch that had been bothering him.

“My grandsons want to go with me to Forest Dunes and play golf, but it’s a problem for them playing the big courses, and a problem for me taking them out there with 180 other golfers,” Thompson explains. “The par 3 is perfect for them; the longest hole is 155 yards and the shortest is 50 yards.”

The 10-hole course tops out at just shy of 1,000 yards in length and was laid out between the original Tom Weiskopf layout and the 36-hole Loop, the reversible design that Traverse City-based architect Tom Doak created three years ago. It’s also conveniently located adjacent to the new two-acre putting green, the practice area, the clubhouse, and an outdoor bar.

“It won’t only be great for the kids and families, it will be a lot of fun for everybody. Scratch golfers or high-handicap players can go out there and work on their short game,” Thompson says.

Harbor Shores Golf Club
Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor, above and first photo, is expanding with new homes, hotels, and public amenities. // Courtesy of Harbor Shores

With the emphasis on fun, there are almost no rules. An eightsome can tee off, drinks in hand, and play barefoot if they like.

Two fledging young golf designers, Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb, were selected by Thompson to create the course. Johns worked for Doak during construction of The Loop, and Rhebb gained his experience in the 13 years he worked for the top-rated design firm of Bill Coore and Ben Crewshaw.

Johns and Rhebb came to Forest Dunes last year fresh off their first major project, a renovation of the acclaimed 100-year-old, nine-hole Winter Park Golf Club in Winter Park, Fla.

Even as the Hilltop comes on line, Thompson is eyeing another 18-hole course for Forest Dunes. “I’m kind of a trigger-puller,” he drawls in his thick Arkansas accent. “We’re looking at building another course. I think the demand is there, and if our customers say they want it, it’s highly possible it will come to life this year or next year.”

Thompson, a trucking magnate from Huntsville, Ala., made a fortune hauling Butterball turkeys and chickens around the country. Starting out with one truck and one load of turkeys in 1983, his Lew Thompson and Son Trucking Co. has grown to 195 trucks and 360 trailers.

Since purchasing the 1,300-acre Forest Dunes property and its award-winning Tom Weiskopf golf course out of bankruptcy in 2011, the tall, lanky golf aficionado has transformed the once defunct club into a bucket-list destination for serious golfers. First he added a 14-room lodge to encourage overnight stays, since Forest Dunes is considered by some to be in a relatively remote location in the Huron National Forest.

Forest Dunes Golf Club
Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, right, offers a new 10-hole, par-3 course called the Hilltop. // Courtesy of Forest Dunes Golf Club

Next, Thompson gave the green light to Doak’s radical design for The Loop. The two 18-hole courses, Red and Black, share the same fairways playing to the same greens, but each course approaches the green from the opposite side. The hazards and features built into fairways and greens look totally different when played in the opposite direction.

Since play is limited to going in one direction on the Red one day, and approaching from the opposite direction on the Black the next day, The Loop has accomplished one of Thompson’s goals for the resort: boosting more overnight stays to an average of three days, while driving up sales in the restaurant, bars, and pro shop.

In the past few years, the resort has also been adding villas and cottages to keep pace with the golf courses. This season, two six-bedroom, five-bath cottages will debut along the lake, in walking distance to the clubhouse and other amenities. The new additions bring the number of beds available to 127.

At Treetops, Owens says extensive renovation of all rooms, meeting areas, and other amenities at the resort two years ago led to a record surge in business last year.

The number of rounds played on the four 18-hole courses and the nine-hole Threetops layout was more than 89,000, he adds. An exclamation point to the golf season was the inclusion of the Threetops course in Golf Digest’s list of 20 must-do items on “the common man’s bucket list.”

Owens says the renovated hotel also saw a boost in its ski business this past winter. He says the final numbers will show a room, food, and beverage improvement of between 12 percent and 20 percent. “We had a decent weather year,” he says. “We didn’t have the bitter cold or rain, and although we started slow with snow, we made up for it as the season went along.”

Harbor Shores Golf Club
Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor was controversial when built, but it has since paid dividends by driving private and public revenue. // Courtesy of Harbor Shores

The Gaylord Golf Mecca, the moniker under which 15 area courses and resorts market themselves, has grown to 20 properties this year with the return to the fold of nearby Garland Resort, with its four courses in Lewiston, and the addition of the Lakes of the North Golf Club on the western outskirts of the city.

Last season the 15 clubs and 20 lodging partners, including Treetops, tallied 207,261 rounds of golf with total revenue for tee times, rooms, food, and beverage totaling $13.5 million, according to Beachnau, a founding member and general manager of the Mecca.   

Beachnau and Owens say the increase in airline travel and the addition of hotel and resort rooms is driven partly by more out-of-state visitors who have been wooed to northern Michigan by a collaborative marketing partnership involving travel and convention bureaus in Traverse City, Gaylord, Petoskey, Mackinac Island, Charlevoix, and the Cherry Capital Airport.

Representatives from each entity spent the past winter attending golf shows around the Midwest and Canada, and as far away as Dallas, spreading the word about golf and summertime attractions in northern Michigan. “Their partnership with the airport and the state is attracting more out-of-state visitors, which is good for all of us,” Owens says. “Out-of-town visitors stay longer and never ask about costs.”

The 2020 tourism season will also mark a sea change in the fortunes of one of the state’s enduring attractions, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Last fall the graceful 397-room Victorian-styled hotel that dates to 1887 was sold by the Musser family, owners of the landmark since the 1930s.

The new owner is a private equity firm, KSL Partners, which has offices in Stamford, Conn.; Denver; London, England; and Singapore. R.D. (Dan) Musser continues as chairman of the hotel, which will be managed by Pivot Hotels and Resorts, a luxury division of Davidson Hotels and Resorts in Atlanta.

Beachnau says the Pure Michigan campaign and local marketing efforts have played a crucial role in educating the rest of the country about the state’s superior golf, white sand beaches, towering sand dunes, wineries, biking and hiking trails, skiing, fishing, golf, fine dining, live music, performance theaters, and festivals. “We, like everyone else in the country, are watching how this coronavirus crisis plays out, and we hope for the best,” Beachnau says.

Bounce Back

Ten years ago, national pundits and local critics in Benton Harbor questioned plans to incorporate part of a city-owned parcel along Ox Creek and the Paw Paw River into an upscale golf club.

At the same time, supporters touted the development as a catalyst for economic revival in a community struggling to rebound from the loss of hundreds of manufacturing jobs due to global competition.

Now those visionaries are proving prophetic. Since 2010, the Harbor Shores Glof Club has generated nearly $1 billion in area investments and created more than 3,200 new jobs. A decade ago, the state equalized value of that property was $0. By 2019, its value was $40 million.   

The controversy over the golf club was ignited more than a decade ago, when Harbor Shores leased 23 acres to build an 18-hole course where three lakeside golf holes in the restricted 90-acre Jean Klock beachfront park were planned. The park space was deeded to the city in 1917 for perpetual use by city residents.

After multiple protests and several court challenges, the course, designed by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, is the centerpiece of a $500-million development that reclaimed an old polluted Superfund site, replaced 3 million square feet of dilapidated old buildings, restored to recreational use miles of river shoreline, and connected it all with 12 miles of walking trails.

“When you see what happened, it helps explain why the golf course was so essential,” says Jeff Noel, managing director of Harbor Shores and vice president of communications for Whirlpool Corp. The appliance maker teamed with community nonprofits, Benton Harbor, its twin city, St. Joseph, Benton Harbor Township, and local businesses to develop the club.

It was the only way to put something of value where all the old buildings and wetlands were, and in effect create little pods for development that made way for 795 homes, including 440 affordable homes that have been constructed or are in the pipeline, and another 300 homes that will come after that,” Noel says.

The golf club development, which replaced an abandoned industrial site, includes a four-star 92-room hotel, a marina, and homes ranging in price from $250,000 to $1.5 million.   

More jobs have been added by Lakeland Health and other companies that have moved into the area, and Whirlpool built its $85-million world headquarters and technology campus near the Harbor Shores development in 2013.

Over the past nine years, 1,000 new hotel rooms have been constructed in the immediate area, adding 600 jobs, Noel says. Three other hotels under construction are within a three-mile radius of the Jean Klock Park, where more than $4 million has been spent for public use.

“Prior to the Harbor Shores development, the park was run down and seldom used,” Noel says. “Now that Harbor Shores maintains it, the city collects $150,000 per year from people renting the pavilion in the park, or, if they’re not Benton Harbor residents, they’re paying to have access to the park and beach.”

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