In a struggling economy, buying a business that depends on the availability of disposable income might seem like a risky proposition.
But three people have purchased two Bangor-area golf courses and are confident they can carve out their own niches and make a go of it. Two of them are familiar local men and one is a newcomer who was looking at clubs around the country and chose one in Maine.
Colin Gillies of Brewer and Dennis Payson of Surry are the new owners of Traditions Golf Club in Holden, formerly Island Green Golf Links and originally Felt Brook Golf Center. Gillies was the head pro at Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono for 17 years before his departure in 2007 when Harris Golf Co. bought the longtime private club. Payson has owned Carpet One in Bangor for 26 years as well as developing local commercial properties.
The new owner of Hidden Meadows Golf Course in Old Town is Joe Perdue, also a longtime golf pro. He is originally from Bremerton, Wash., but was most recently a pro at a club on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Both Traditions and Hidden Meadows are nine-hole courses. The new owners declined to say how much they paid for the courses.
“It’s not important what we paid,” said Gillies. “What’s important is what we’re putting into them.”
After leaving PVCC, Gillies took over as head pro at St. Johnsbury (Vt.) Country Club in 2008 and spent two years there. His wife Julie and daughter Chelsea stayed in Brewer, though, while Chelsea continued going to Brewer High School. That meant some long drives home and back to work every couple of weeks or so.
Gillies had been told in the past that the Island Green facility, which includes the miniature golf course and a dairy bar, but not the go-carts. was available, but he didn’t feel the need to pursue it because he was happy at PVCC. This time was different.
“After two years of commuting, I was looking for something closer to home,” said Gillies.
They closed on the property the first week in May, which was actually a couple of weeks after it opened for the season.
Gillies asked longtime friend Payson to check it out from a business standpoint.
The next thing Payson knew, he was a partner.
Aside from being a golf pro, Perdue’s story is completely different.
He had never been to Maine, he didn’t know anyone here and he’s going it alone.
“I had been looking for a golf course to buy,” said Perdue, who found there were about 300 for sale in the U.S. “I narrowed it down to four or five states, and Maine was one of them.”
He was interested in possibly getting one in Washington or on the West Coast closer to where he grew up, “but the ones that were available were in the millions,” he said.
“This was in a price range I could afford,” he said with a smile about the course that sits on Route 43 about ¾ of a mile from exit 197 of Interstate-95.
Perdue first toured it with prior owner Willy Lucas in mid-December, “just after the first snow,” he said. He came back a month later, just before the final big storm.
“I liked the area,” he said. “It was gorgeous.”
And he’s enjoying the welcome he has received.
“I have not met one person who was not nice and supportive,” Perdue said.
Down economy has upsides
“It used to be said that golf was a recession-proof business, but they’re not saying that so much anymore,” said Perdue of the struggling economic picture. It did aid his search, though, by putting more clubs within his reach.
“I looked at it as an opportunity,” Perdue said of the economy.
And he thinks the economy’s on the upswing.
“I really think the economy is turning,” said Perdue. “There are no quick fixes, but I think things have bottomed out.
“The mood is more optimistic, and I look at it as an opportunity. I’m not nervous coming into this at all.”
Gillies and Perdue agree that what they offer plays well whether it’s a down economy or a good one.
“What we have to offer has appeal not just in this economy but in the local market,” said Gillies.
Perdue sees local play as being the focus of his business as well.
“A local course depends on local play,” Perdue said.
To attract that play, Gillies, Payson and Perdue have already rolled up their sleeves.
“We’ve focused our resources on the greens,” said Perdue. “The tees, greens and fairways have been sprayed, and we’ve managed to get rid of about 80 percent of the weeds.
“There’s been a major improvement on the greens, and once the greens are nice, we’ll look at the other areas that need a little TLC.”
He also plans to put in a full driving range later this year and an additional tee box on each hole.
“I want to offer a nine-hole golf course with an 18-hole experience,” he said.
Gillies and Payson are also working on the tees, greens and bunkers.
“It’s a well-thought-out, laid-out golf course,” said Payson, “and we’re trying to get it back in a condition that Colin and I are used to at a country club. We’re trying to make it have most of the amenities a country club would have without that price.”
“If I can’t be proud of what we’re going to offer, I just won’t do it,” said Gillies.
Off the course, Gillies and Payson are going to focus on customer service and satisfaction.
“They should leave feeling like we gave everything we could for them,” said Gillies. “We’re going to be nice or die trying.”
One factor that Perdue sees he has to overcome is letting people know the course exists.
“It blows me away how many people don’t know where we are,” said Perdue.
His major activity away from the course will be marketing the club, getting people familiar with the course and what his club has to offer.
“I felt the facility has been undermarketed and has a lot of potential,” said Perdue.
“The previous owner, Will Lucas, put a lot of work into the infrastructure [golf course and structures such as the clubhouse],” Perdue continued. “He didn’t get a lot of time to market the golf course. I’m going to market it aggressively.”
He is looking at juniors and families, teams, leagues, outings and smaller groups.
Both new owners are appreciative of the people who will continue on with them, superintendent Chad Armell at Hidden Meadows and assistant pro Tim Roggero at Traditions.
“Chad is as passionate about being a superintendent as I am about being a pro,” said Perdue.
“Tim, who worked for me for seven years at PVCC, has a huge following here,” said Gillies. “Knowing he was a fixture here, it was a no-brainer.”
All of the owners are trying to keep their expectations reasonable, and plan on being here for the long haul.
“I hope so,” said the 50-year-old Perdue, laughing. “I have a 20-year mortgage. I purchased this to be my last job in golf.”
Gillies, 51, believes there’s more than money to golf.
“I’d love to make money in the business,” said Gillies, “but you know, I’d rather be well respected and well perceived in the community as a professional who provided a product that people wanted to play, provided an atmosphere that people wanted to be around … I get more satisfaction out of that than I would’ve making money in the business.&
Payson, 52, laughed and said, “I’m trying to convince him it’s not a bad thing to make a profit. I’ve done that in my business and it’s not a bad thing.”
Perdue would also like to see a profit, but he’s not expecting a windfall.
“I’m not going to get rich doing this,” said Perdue, “but I don’t need to.”