Short of taking a Mulligan (golf for a do-over), the volunteer directors of the Wiltwyck Golf Club in the Town of Ulster say they have done everything they can think of to save the facility, including a discussion to sell it to the county government last July as an all-season recreation destination.
“We thought it made sense for the county,” said club President Steve Digilio. “It’s a wonderful golf course, of course, the best in the region in our view. It has a swimming pool, tennis courts and a huge clubhouse. Off-season, it could have been used for winter sports, hiking trails, bike paths, lots of things.”
But County Executive Mike Hein, a long-time club member and one of its best players with a 3.3 handicap, wasn’t buying.
“He said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the county,” Digilio said. “He also pointed out that some other counties were giving up their own public golf courses.”
Hein said he offered his “opinion as county executive” during “a very brief conversation” at Digilio’s behest.
Over the past year, Wiltwyck directors say, they’ve done everything they can think of to reduce costs and increase revenues, including leasing out the food and beverage business, opening up the course to the general public on a limited basis, slashing dues and eliminating “equity” investments by new members.
Town of Ulster assessor Jim Maloney, a non-golfer, pitched in with a 43 percent reduction in assessment. In 2014, the club was assessed for $3.4 million. It’s now $1.875 million, a savings of almost $70,000 in annual taxes.
That sales price has declined steadily since the 150-acre golf course was put on the market for $3 million (about 90 percent of its assessed value) in September. On Nov. 1, the board voted to reduce the asking price to $2.6 million.
Digilio said the original asking price was meant to cover outstanding debt (about $1.8 million), accounts receivables and other short-term debt, and to return “equity investments” of capital certificates to its members, in that order. The club hasn’t imposed capital certificates on new members for several years.
During perhaps the worst crisis in the club’s 63-year history, the response from members has been gratifying, according to the club president and membership chairman Marc Luksberg.
“I’d call it overwhelming,” Digilio said. “On Oct. 29 I called a special meeting of members and board member, where as president I explained our situation, our attempts to deal with it, and the possibility that we would default on our mortgage if we didn’t make payment on Nov. 1. There was a moment of silence. Someone from the back of the room said, ‘I’ll donate $1,000.’”
That started the ball rolling. Foreclosure was staved off when 24 members voluntarily donated.
What happens Dec. 1? Club directors don’t know.
The once-prosperous club’s dilemma comes down to cash flow. “We just didn’t have enough revenue,” said Luksberg, Digilio’s colleague at Morgan Stanley on North Front Street. Digilio said it cost about $18,000 a month to service debt and meet minimal operating costs. Including up to $300,000 for course maintenance, the club’s budget is about $1 million a year.
Catskill Hudson Bank sold its mortgage on the club to Dr. Tony Bacchi earlier this year. Bacchi owns The Lazy Swan in Saugerties and the former Dutchess Golf Club in the Town of Poughkeepsie, in addition to the county infirmary.
“We’ve had some conversations,” Digilio said. “He says it’s an investment. He doesn’t say what he might do with it.” Bacchi has been unavailable for comment.
Full golf membership, once frozen under club bylaws at 300 and with a waiting list, has declined in recent years to fewer than 130. Twenty-five years ago, it cost almost $10,000 to join Wiltwyck, including a bond, initiation fees and membership. A golf membership now costs less than $4,000.
Through the years, even in decline, Wiltwyck has continued its commitment to youth golf. Kingston and Coleman golf teams play for free at the club as do SUNY Ulster squads. The club holds an annual tournament to raise money for youth golf programs.
In some ways, Wiltwyck’s history reflects the experience of Ulster County.
A proud past
Opened as a nine-hole track in 1933 on farmland now occupied in large part by Coleman Catholic High School and crossing Hurley Avenue, Wiltwyck sold that property to the state in 1954 for construction of the Thruway. Club directors hired Hall-of-Fame golf architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. to design a championship golf course.
“What makes a championship golf course?” Digilio said. “It’s a combination of length (over 7,000 yards from the longest tees), layout and difficulty.” Known locally as “the palace” among 18-hole courses, Wiltwyck has hosted regional qualifiers for the state amateur title several times.
In what amounted to a perfect storm, the club embarked on a million-dollar clubhouse renovation in 1994-95, just as IBM was finalizing the closure of its local manufacturing plant. It was a business plan that made sense at the time, Digilio insisted. “Few golf clubs make a profit on golf,” he said. “It’s the food and beverage and catering operations that supports the golf. For several years, under the direction of [long-retired] Al and Theresa Barone, we ran profits in that area.”
A significant number of Wiltwyck’s members and their families were mid-level and higher IBM executives, Digilio said. When they left, membership and club activity declined.
“But it wasn’t all about economics,” said Digilio, a member for 32 years. “Demographics play a big part. Today’s late 20-and-early-30-somethings, I guess they call them Millennials, marry later and have children later. They’re very busy with their children and careers. Golf might come after that. We used to get golfers in their mid-20s. Now it’s mid-40s.”
The club leased its once-profitable food and beverage operation to the owner of The Chateau in Kingston in April. The relationship lasted only a few months. “He was in it for an extended period, two or three years, and so were we. When we announced we planned to sell it the relationship wound down.”
Reducing membership fees from almost $6,000 a year to $3,900 helped some, Digilio said. Opening the course on a limited basis for the first time to the public in August generated some cash flow, but not enough.
Glut of courses on the market
Golf in general has declined, particularly in the northern states. Those market realities make selling Wiltwyck all the more challenging.
Digilio says would-be investors “have spent some money” looking at the site’s assets. Its 14,000-square-foot clubhouse could be adopted for residential or commercial use. Located on a “tight” 150-acre site — most 18-hole golf courses occupy a minimum of 200 acres — the course fairways might have limited use for condos or upper-scale housing. Appropriate development would be limited by the Thruway and large overhead utility lines to the west and existing homes immediately to the east.
Noting “significant interest in the club” following recent media coverage, Digilio said, “We’ve told our members that the objective is to sell the club to someone who will run it as a golf facility. That’s a decision for the new owner. Personally, I don’t care. I’d just like to continue playing golf at Wiltwyck.”