Optimistic View Point
15 Years in the Making, Cold Spring C.C. Opens for BusinessAfter a number of false starts and mis-steps, the long-awaited Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown opened its fairways this spring. There has been the expected curiosity factor among regional players, getting the operation off to a solid start, but management understands that the key to success isn’t getting the attention of the golfing community — it’s holding it.
Fan Du says there was a great deal of buzz, or anticipation, that accompanied the recent opening of Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown — and with good reason.
After all, this track, located just over the Ludlow line in a former apple orchard, has been more than 15 years in the making. Over that time, there have been several ownership groups involved, a well-chronicled foreclosure, and enough fits and starts to prompt the residents of that area to wonder if the vision would ever become reality.
“People have been waiting a long time for this course to open — there has been a lot of curiosity,” said Du, whose father, Sheng Du, a successful businessman in China and avid golfer, is the man responsible for resurrecting the project. He was able to look past the problems, she said, and focus on both the incredible views from the hilltop where the clubhouse was eventually constructed — and also the vast potential of the property to become home to a golf course and much more.
The challenge moving forward, said Bill Tragakis, head golf professional and club manager, is to maintain and build upon that buzz, and channel it into what will become a multi-faceted business venture, launched during a difficult time for the golf business in general and the economy as a whole.
But the requisite pieces are in place or on the drawing board, said Tragakis, adding that the highly anticipated golf course is merely the first one to fall into place. Others include the club’s 19th hole, a restaurant now open to the public that was launched with expectations that it could become a popular destination for residents of Belchertown and surrounding communities, as well as a large banquet facility to be located further up the hill and a housing component that has no timetable as of yet but will likely be commenced when that sector improves.
In both cases, the goal is to bring people back repeatedly, he explained, noting that every course in the region is confronting the same basic challenge, and must respond accordingly.
“The keys are impeccable conditions for the golf course and superb customer service, and that’s where our focus has been,” he said. “This club has a resort appearance, and that’s by design.”
For this issue and its focus on the region’s golf industry, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Cold Spring development, and why its managers look to the future with optimism and confidence born from a combination of persistence and imagination.
Designs on Success
Du, who has assumed a leadership role at the club with her husband, Willie Guo, told BusinessWest that one of the many assignments that had to be carried out over the past several months was selecting a logo for the venture, a branding mechanism now affixed to everything from ball markers to shirts; from golf-bag towels to a wide variety of head gear.
“There’s a lot that goes into this, and it took a while to create this look,” she said with a laugh, while displaying the eventual winner — the words Cold Spring juxtaposed against a leaf. The image contains several colors, including red, orange, gold, and a few shades of green, and it was chosen, said Du, to spotlight what is perhaps the club’s best selling point — the scenery, especially at fall foliage season.
It was the views at that time of year that captivated her father, said Du, adding quickly that the scenes from the top of the hill, which he discovered while looking for business opportunities in Massachusetts, were certainly not enough to prompt the requisite sizable investment in the project. Indeed, the initiative had to make good fiscal sense, she went on, something that outwardly appeared unlikely given the challenged state of the local golf industry and the prevailing opinion that this region was already saturated, if not oversaturated, with places to play.
But market analysis, not to mention instinct, indicated that there was room in the market for a higher-end, semi-private course that offered something distinctive, said Tragakis, formerly the pro at Hampden Country Club, adding that he believes that Cold Spring delivers those qualities.
The elder Du acquired the property in 2009, said his daughter, adding that preliminary construction on the course resumed soon thereafter, with grass put down early in 2010. Construction of the ornate clubhouse and a maintenance building commenced in 2011, and the course was open for business on May 1 for members and June 1 for the general public.
What the golfers have found is a test that is both stern and somewhat unique, said Tragakis, who points to the scorecard for some evidence. It has yardages for five tees, including championship markers that stretch the track to 6,521 yards. “And that’s the longest 6,521 yards you’ll ever play, because the actual yardage is somewhat hidden,” he said, noting that there are some uphill stretches, particularly the rugged par 4 18th, to go with some downhill holes, and a rare route to a par of 71.
Indeed, there are six par 3s (three on each side), and five par 5s, he said, noting that a typical par 71 would have four of the former and three of the latter.
The course architects, Armstrong Associates, located in New Mexico, essentially took what the land offered, and designed an intriguing test for players of all abilities, said Tragakis, adding that this is one of the many ingredients necessary to attract a large and diverse audience.
Overall, he describes Cold Spring as a mix of Crumpin Fox (in Bernardston) and the Ranch (Southwick), meaning the former’s tight, tree-lined fairways — which dominate the front side — and the latter’s open, sweeping fairways, prevalent on the back nine.
Thus far, the course has been successful in attracting both members and public play, said Tragakis, and it must continue to do both if it is to be profitable. “My goal is to make this golf course a fun, enjoyable experience for everyone,” he explained, “but especially for the members. We need them to come back, and we need to keep growing those numbers; that’s our rainy day money.”
The membership count now exceeds 200, and continues to climb each week, something unusual at this time of year, months after most area players have settled on a club to join for the year, he said, adding that many former members of nearby Hampden Country Club (now under new ownership) have joined Cold Spring. An attractive senior membership rate ($750) has attracted more than 70 people from that demographic group.
Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of public play, with visitors from across Western Mass. and even Northern Conn., which Tragakis attributes to that aforementioned buzz factor, as well as some aggressive, targeted marketing.
The club has focused mostly on radio, including the expensive option of taking slots during Red Sox games and related programming, he noted, adding that the pitch line used at the end of each spot — “it’s the reason you play golf” — sums up how the club intends to differentiate itself.
The specific marketing message has varied through the first several months, he went on, adding that in the late winter and early spring, before the season started, the club was focused on memberships. Later, the emphasis was on the fact that the club had opened for play, and most recently, the accent has been on stressing that, despite its appearance (including the elaborate stone entranceway now under construction), Cold Spring is in fact open to the public, as is its restaurant.
And that’s important, because attracting golfers is just part of the success quotient, said Du, adding that there will eventually be several components to this venture.
For starters, there’s the club’s restaurant, called simply the 19th Hole Bar and Grille, which, like a growing number of facilities at public and semi-private courses (including The Ranch and Crumpin Fox), is open to the public and will be in operation year-round.
Ron Riopel, food and beverage manager for Cold Spring, said the restaurant is relatively small (just over 70 seats inside), but can accommodate more than 120 on a large patio that boasts sweeping views of the course and the hills beyond, and will likely stay open until at least mid-fall.
Beyond the scenery, the outdoor area will feature live music on many evenings (a ‘Caribbean Night’ was staged recently), and a menu Riopel described as “simplified but elegant.”
Elaborating, he noted that the fare extends well beyond traditional post-round food (most of it fried), and includes such options as pan-seared Pacific Ponga, a Vietnamese white fish.
The 19th Hole opened to members and the public on June 1, and like all new eateries, went through a breaking-in period, during which kinks were worked out and staff members came fully up to speed, said Riopel, adding that, as with the golf course, there has been a curiosity factor surrounding the restaurant that has prompted many area residents to take the drive up the hill.
And, also like the course, repeat business will be a function of delivering a quality experience, he continued, noting that he believes the facility should fare well in a region that doesn’t have a deep roster of competing restaurants.
Tragakis said some of the recent marketing has made reference to the dining element, underscoring its importance to the overall operation. “We have focused on food and beverage in these spots,” he explained. “We’re not going to forget about golf — we’re still a golf course — but public dining is a big part of what we’re doing, and I think the restaurant will do very well.”
Other components of the Cold Spring business plan are on the drawing board, to one degree or another, said Du, who told BusinessWest that plans are being developed for a banquet hall that will sit above the clubhouse.
The facility will be large in scale, and meet what she considers a recognized need in the Quaboag Valley region, she went on, adding that there is no immediate timeline for construction.
The same can be said for a housing component that most experts say is a key to the success of any large golf operation. There is considerable land on which to build houses or condos, she noted, adding that market analysis is currently ongoing, and it is likely that work will begin over the next five years.
Successful Roll Out
If all the pieces fall into place as expected, Cold Spring will become a formidable player in the large and seemingly ever-changing local golf market, said Tragakis.
He acknowledged that the industry is faced with many challenges — from the still-sluggish economy and its broad impact on discretionary spending, to stagnancy and even retreat in the number of people taking up the game, to the vagaries of the weather.
But venues that succeed in creating enjoyable and memorable experiences can overcome those issues, he continued, adding that Cold Spring has enormous potential to do just that.
“The view from up here is good,” he said, using that term in both a literal and figurative sense, “and we think it’s only going to get better.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]