No club or resort property captures the trauma of the past decade—or reflects renewed hope for the industry’s future—more than The Bridges, in Montrose, Colo.
It’s a story that would certainly get the attention of TV and movie producers—and even Hollywood might find that it has enough of the required sensational elements to not need any further embellishment:
Real-estate developer targets incredibly scenic and still relatively uncrowded and unspoiled region of western Colorado for new residential community that will include semi-private club component. Big-name designer is hired to create acclaimed golf course, and impressive clubhouse is built. But in less than two years, the developer suffers enough personal losses (some unrelated to the project) that he commits suicide, and the property is taken over by a local bank.
Location: Montrose, Colo.
Three years later, that bank fails, and the property falls under the control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The agency hires a respected management company to try to revive the club component of the development. But after only four years, the property, literally, still has signs—which urge potential buyers to call the now-deceased original developer—that create an overall sense of inescapable doom.
The story doesn’t end there—and this is the part that might get Disney interested in telling it. A self-made businessman is now ready to retire and have his son assume primary control of his firm. Over the last 10 years, he has developed a new and fast-growing passion for golf, so he decides to look into buying a course or club that could keep him busy.
That quest eventually leads him to western Colorado, where he looks at the troubled property that the FDIC would very much like to unload. But instead of only seeing signs of failure, he sees incredible scenery in an attractive area, and the potential for providing great living and golfing experiences. As a savvy businessman, he also sees the opportunity to obtain the property at rock-bottom cents-on-the-dollar ratios.
Here, we can pick up the story without having to wait for the movie. The businessman is Lew Thompson, from Huntsville, Ark. Thirty years ago, he started Lew Thompson Trucking (now Lew Thompson and Son) with one truck, and hitched that wagon to what was then Swift-Eckrich meats. A partnership grew over the years, to where Thompson’s firm now handles 85% of the distribution of Butterball turkeys and other products throughout the U.S.
The property that Thompson saw, and then bought in December 2010, is The Bridges, in Montrose, Colo. When he made the purchase, the club had barely 20 members, and other key operating benchmarks were also on life support. Thompson ended the management company contract and brought in Eric Feely, PGA, a respected golf professional who had been with The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa in Grand Junction, Colo., to be The Bridges’ new General Manager. While Feely’s wife, Beth Morris-Feely, plunged into efforts to revive marketing and sales efforts for both the club and residential plots, through her position as a Broker with The Bridges of Montrose Realty, LLC, Eric Feely set out to pull together a new operating team that could start to give the club new life.
On the Upswing
A year later, no one at The Bridges tries to deny its history, or sugarcoat its current situation. Thompson, Feely and others on the staff are forthright about all that’s occurred in the club’s first five years. Nor do they hide from the fact that many of the numbers reflecting current levels of activity on the property are still sparse by most club management standards.
At the same time, a full accounting of where The Bridges now stands needs to add these figures to the mix:
- A “grand opening” in August to introduce the new owner and staff drew over 500 people, including membership prospects and community leaders.
- Memberships (golf and social) have increased by more than a factor of six in the past year, to over 140.
- Three times more wedding business has been booked for 2012 than for this year (when 12 were held).
- Regular events instituted over the past year, such as Burger Nights, beer-pairing dinners and “Date Nights” with live music on Saturdays, have been consistently drawing much larger crowds than anticipated, both from among the growing membership and from locals in the Montrose area (population 20,000).
- There has been a slow but significant increase in recent months in both interest in and actual purchase of homesites, as well as renewed construction activity, on the property surrounding the club.
The Force of Four
Even with such a steady stream of encouraging developments during the past year, The Bridges’ new ownership and staff is quick to acknowledge that the biggest challenges still lie ahead (the ultimate membership goal is 400, and more than 300 homesites remain available). But the traction they’ve gained has already convinced them that not only does the property remain viable, it can realize special potential by properly combining these four factors:
• The Area—The original developer, who was from Denver, did have the right vision, those involved with The Bridges feel, in targeting the Montrose area as one of the best remaining untapped areas for retirement, family relocations and recreational appeal—not only on Colorado’s Western Slope, but the West and perhaps the U.S. as a whole.
Montrose, with a climate that avoids extremes in all seasons, sits in a centralized location that not only offers easy access to popular ski areas such as Aspen and Telluride to the north and south (see map, opposite page), but also sits on the edge of unique natural attractions such as the Colorado National Monument, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The city of Montrose, as well as other surrounding towns, has an effective, well-funded Convention and Visitor Bureau that actively promotes the region and now works closely with Feely (who is on its Board) to position The Bridges as one of the area’s assets.
“Montrose has just about everything you want, but without being a huge city,” says Lew Thompson in describing what made him decide (along with the affordability) to select The Bridges for his first venture in the golf industry. “I saw a nice course and clubhouse in a great location that was close and convenient to everything, and with unbelievable views—which I think the people who grow up in Colorado may take for granted and not fully appreciate how special they are.”
• The Facilities—The Nicklaus Design course, with its panoramic views of the San Juan Mountains and charming bridges (which give the club its name) that have been built over peaceful water features and marshes, is still felt to be a hidden gem that will only gain added appeal from improvements that are now being planned.
The Bridges’ clubhouse, which Thompson cites as being “well-built, with real quality,” has already been returned to like-new condition, particularly on its second floor, where four luxury suites have been fully reappointed. This lodging amenity bolsters the opportunity for The Bridges to offer stay-and-play packages, Feely says, even for those who might not want to play that much golf, but could still use the property as a place to set up “base camp” while exploring all that the region has to offer. The suites are also proving to be a value-added feature that’s helping to attract business for weddings, meetings and other events, he adds. “We treat it like you’re a guest in our house,’” he says. “We give you keys, and you can come and go as you please.”
One feature of the clubhouse that came with The Bridges deal, Lew Thompson admits, was something that he first thought would be “the biggest liability—but now I think might be its best asset.” That would be Remington’s at the Bridges, the clubhouse’s main restaurant. As its views and flexible seating capabilities (see photos below) have been combined effectively with the creativity of a staff led by new Executive Chef Roy Perkins and Restaurant Manager James Cronin, Remington’s has already proved to be “a huge deal” over the past year, Thompson says.
The excitement is not only coming from inventive dishes and menus, but also from determined efforts to create a continuing buzz about the renewed spirit and fun to be found at The Bridges. One of the most inspired concepts was “The Little Big Christmas Party” that was created for this holiday season. On Saturday, December 10th, Remington’s was the site of a gathering marketed to small businesses that might otherwise feel they can’t afford to have a company party of their own. But for an all-inclusive price of $49.95 per person, those companies could bring their staffs to come and mix with people from other firms of similar sizes, for an all-out blast that included live entertainment, giveaways and door prizes, in addition to a special buffet. In mid-October, The Bridges already had over 200 reservations for the event, and was expecting to end up with 350.
The Bridges is also already contemplating how it can add fitness to its amenity mix. “We know it’s something we’ll probably have to do, to really be more of a complete club,” Feely says. “We’ve had some plans designed for it, and think it might be something that could be added effectively to our suites area.”
• The Staff—One key to how The Bridges’ new staff has hit the ground running during their first year together has been the variety of backgrounds and expertise now represented on the team.
Perkins brought a wide range of experience from both fine-dining and casual venues, as well as from running his own mobile catering business, using a custom-built rolling kitchen from which he sometimes fed as many as 550 people at an outdoor event. Cronin had been a district manager with the El Torito restaurant chain and managed wine cafes before working with Feely (and Chris Carter, who is now The Bridges’ Golf Course Superintendent) at The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa.
Head Professional Brandon England, PGA, came from The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. “That’s certainly a place everyone’s heard of—and for him to come here said a lot to me about what he thought about the course, and the potential for the club,” says Thompson.
• The Owner—Lew Thompson really got the golf industry’s attention with a second purchase that he and partners in his ownership group made this October, of the renowned Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, Mich. Here, too, Thompson raised eyebrows by ending Forest Dunes’ existing arrangement with a management company, and announcing plans to assemble a new management team (until it is in place, Eric Feely is doing double-duty to also direct the Forest Dunes operation).
Thompson goes out of his way to make sure the actions he’s taken as a new owner on the golf club scene aren’t misinterpreted—and in doing so, provides insights into how he hopes to make an impact on the industry (he says he will continue to look for properties that include a real estate component and represent good investment opportunities).
“I don’t want it to look like I’m throwing management companies under the bus,” Thompson says. “They do a fine job in many situations. But when you have properties that need to grow their memberships considerably, I think it’s important to have an independent team that is really focused on personal service and is tied in with their communities.
“That’s why I wanted someone like Eric at The Bridges, because it’s clear, as soon as you meet him, that he knows how people—not only members and guests, but also his staff—want to be treated,” Thompson adds. “And people like him because he has that quality. I may be new to the golf business, but I know that’s the secret to success, for whatever you do.”
View The Bridges Lunch Menu here.
View The Bridges Dinner Menu here.