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The Course of a Year

New Owners at Hampden Country Club are Putting a Hidden Gem in the Public Eye
Bill Tragakis, left, and Nick Cardinale.

Bill Tragakis, left, and Nick Cardinale, owners of Hampden Country Club, have plenty of plans teed up for 2007.

Bill Tragakis, co-owner of the Hampden Country Club, calls the last year of his life a Cinderella story.

True, there are no pumpkin coaches or glass slippers — those have been replaced with golf carts and spikes. But Tragakis, who purchased the golf course and club along with Nick Cardinale and Michelle Siniscalchi (as Hampden Realty Partners LLC) just under a year ago, said there are some similarities between the classic tale and his own; he worked for several years behind the scenes before achieving a life-long dream, and now he too has his own ballroom.

Metaphors aside, though, the Hampden Country Club is indeed experiencing a rebirth of late, with its trio of new owners at the helm. Tragakis, who worked with its previous owner, Friel Golf Management, for 20 years (five of those at Hampden) joined forces with Cardinale, a club member with a background in environmental consultancy, and Siniscalchi, a neighbor with an interest in the property, after Friel management announced it was ready to sell.

In January of this year, that sale was finalized at $3.4 million, marking the start of a new venture for its current owners, all three locally based. And for Tragakis, the club’s former head golf pro, it offered a chance to live what he says is every golf pro’s dream — to own and operate a course of his own.

Now approaching the close of its first year in business under new ownership and management, the club that opened in 1973 as a 9-hole course is entering 2007 on terra firma, said Tragakis. He credits a solid first year — one that saw membership numbers more than double and an overall increase in revenue from 2005 — with the public taking notice of varied improvement projects that are ongoing inside and out.

“I think people have seen us putting a lot of money and time into the operation,” he said. “They’ve seen us bring it to a new level, and from there we can continue to grow and reach out to new members and the public.”

Going for the Green

All of those renovations and improvements to the semi-private club and its 295 acres of land are geared, he noted, toward steadily increasing membership, translating the club’s amenities to the public, and creating a competitive golf course in two senses of the word — one that challenges golfers and also attracts new faces to its grounds, on a local, regional, and even national scale.

And in some cases, that meant facing some challenges head on almost immediately after closing the deal, including the club’s reputation as a ‘hidden gem.’

“A lot of people still think we’re a private club and I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s the long, winding entrance, or maybe it’s because a long time ago, the club was private,” said Tragakis, tracing the history of the club, which opened 18-holes to members two years after opening, and was owned locally until Friel Management took over. “We may be private again, but we want the public to know that we’re here, and right now we’re very much open to them.”

There were other challenges too, such as a championship course that was in need of some repair and a clubhouse with a somewhat dated look. There was also the diverse business model of a country club to take into account — in addition to improving and managing a 150-acre course and its ancillary dining and retail operations, the partners were also charged with maintaining and promoting the club’s 300-person capacity banquet facility.

But Tragakis added that no time has been lost in addressing those hurdles, and moreover capitalizing on the club’s existing strengths, which include an enviable view of the Pioneer Valley, striking architecture, and a challenging course that attracts golfers at all levels.

“We’re suited for both large and small outings and also for large and small events inside the facility,” he said, noting that to increase both types of business, he and his fellow owners have been marketing the club as a premier location for business meetings of all sizes. “We’re perfect for that two-hour meeting, be it a breakfast meeting or a dinner, and a business meeting that breaks in the middle for nine holes of golf is an even better sell. We’re very interested in capitalizing on that.”

In addition, the partners are working to raise the profile of food operations at the club overall, making plans to hold fine wine dinners, themed events, and offer live entertainment in the pub area, as well as expand the dining area to the outside patio during the spring, summer, and fall months. And one of the first changes the new owners made was upstairs in the banquet area, where catering services have been outsourced to Hampden House Banquet catering.

“We’re not experts in the food and beverage business,” said Tragakis, “And we felt it was the better choice to work with people who were. The Hampden House also has a strong reputation in this area.”

But perhaps more visible than those changes to regular operations have been the physical improvements in the club and on its course. To date, the ground floor, which includes the 19th Hole bar and casual dining area, locker rooms, and the pro shop, has been redesigned, and upstairs, the banquet facility has also seen some improvements, including the addition of a bridal suite.

Outside on the 18-hole golf course, maintenance has been stepped up to include more labor and better equipment, as well as more aesthetic landscaping features such as a rose garden with a small terrace that Cardinale is designing himself.

Plans are also being mulled for an upgrade to the course’s irrigation system, creation of an outdoor seating area and outdoor event space, and improvements to the driving range and tee boxes. All of the plans will make for a better course and a better value, said Cardinale, for members who can golf at Hampden for $39 on weekdays and $50 on weekends.

“We have multiple things going on at the same time, and many developments planned for the coming year,” said Cardinale. “The property had been neglected somewhat, and it definitely needs some work. We want to look at all of those things that need improvement and set goals to enhance and upgrade the quality of the entire course, and we also want to add the bells and whistles that a top-notch course requires.”

In terms of long-range plans, some possible developments to the untouched land that surrounds the course are also being discussed, he added.

“There’s a lot of land that, down the road, has great potential for development. We’re taking it one year at a time, though, and focusing on the overall beautification of the course,” Cardinale said. “We’re hoping that people will see us continuously putting a lot of time and work into this property.”

The bottom line, Tragakis added, is to retain those who are currently frequent visitors to the club and to recruit new members, as well as members of the business community.

“It’s a fine balance,” he explained. “We don’t want to book too many outings, or tournaments, because if we’re too full, our members can’t play. We’d like to have enough that we know we have a steady stream lined up, but that our members won’t notice.”

Even with that close attention to balance though, already those outings have quadrupled at the club, with about 70% of them large events.

“We haven’t lost a group,” said Tragakis, “and if we can pick up three or four more each year, that’s great. That’s the steady growth we want.”

Fair Way to Assess Progress

And while he likens the strong showing the club has demonstrated in its first year to a fairy tale, Tragakis said the work toward improvement and the reasons why are very much rooted in reality.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” he said in summary. “We have to make sure we hit the mark, and that we hit it on our first try.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]