It’s an emotional day for Berrien Hills Golf Club owner Chris Neuser today. He says, “We did our best for 14 seasons and it’s time to get it into the hands of the right people to do the right thing for the community next.” With that, Berrien Hills will wrap up a 95 year presence in the community at the end of the current season with an auction slated for late October to sell everything but the land and buildings.
The 88-acre gem along a more than 3,000 foot stretch of St. Joseph River frontage will cease to be a golf club for the first time since it was first founded in the Roaring 20’s.
At the end of the current season, which will largely be dictated by Mother Nature at this point, Berrien Hills will close forever paving the way for potential redevelopment into a multi-use property.
Neuser and his long time General Manager Dave Vonk say that they have been working with several prospective developers and the team at Cornerstone Alliance to find the highest, best use for the beautiful property in a multi-use project.
Neuser and his father bought the property in April of 2006, and converted it into a public golf course. Prior to that it served as a private, members-and-guests only country club for fully 81 years before financial instability forced it to be sold.
Neuser makes it very clear that the property has not be sold as yet, but they are working very closely with prospective developers on several fronts for a true mixed use development that could entail such things a waterfront dining, a hotel, apartments or condos, even assisted living and senior housing opportunities have been put onto the table with absolutely nothing concrete at this juncture. In fact, Neuser says that money hasn’t even been seriously addressed as yet while parties conduct their due diligence and discovery phase to determine what the potentials are for the river front space.
Vonk says, “Nothing is cast in stone yet.” Despite that, he hears from a lot of folks with speculation running rampant. The property is not listed on the open market, but been Cornerstone Alliance has helped to showcase the land and buildings to potential developers and there is strong interest on several parts, but no deal yet.
For the golf community, however, the end is concrete. The end of the season marks the end of Berrien Hills as a golf community.
The club has “probably struggled for the past 20 years,” according to Vonk. He ventures a guess that, “What hurt us was the advent of travel sports, and Millennials don’t play golf as much as Boomers did. Kids are playing hockey, and travel baseball, softball and other team sports far moreso now.”
On October 26th an auction will take place to sell all the equipment, furnishings, left over pro shop items, and everything else. Big Bear Auctions of Eau Claire will handle it and sell everything but the buildings and the land they sit on. Jerry Glassman will handle the auction.
For Berrien Hills, it was touch and go whether they would even be able to open this year with the soggy, wet spring season and flooded conditions.
The club house building is 26,000 square feet with a kitchen, basement meeting rooms, a banquet room, pub, pro shop, offices, and more and there are several other buildings including a cart barn, maintenance building, garage and a pole barn also on the property. The 41 golf carts go on the auction block with everything else.
The club has had around 20 employees, but had a lot of trouble lining them up over the last several years. Plans are to be open so long as the weather holds up, operating seven days a week from 8am until dusk.
Neuser says, “I’m pleased for the community if it works out with potential developers. It should be something very exciting for the area with a multi-use development. The goal is that instead of just selling it for something unknown for what we don’t know, or what the process would be, or even what the end result might be, or somebody else’s use might be, it would be much more exciting to have something that is a multi-use plan with a true urban redevelopment in the area as opposed to just throwing up a bunch of stick homes all lined up.”
Neuser adds, “There are players with the wherewithal and ability to make something real special here as opposed to just buying land and throwing something up fast and cheap. That was our main concern is trying to find the right buyers to have it be something that would be very positive for the community.”
He says in the next couple of months they should have a letter of commitment, but everybody wants to make sure that all the ducks are in a row with due diligence, and local municipalities, as prospects do their own homework looking at housing studies and other data from cross development studies that Cornerstone has been providing. Neuser says, “It’s in the hands of prospective buyers at this point, and what emerges from the township meetings in October.”
A couple of main groups appear to be working together to oversee the project, but even if things move swiftly, vertical construction could be at least a year away.
Neuser says, “It’s a mixed emotional time for me. It’s been difficult. I never thought when we got involved as a family that it would have taken the revenue to keep it going as long as we have, and it certainly isn’t sustainable for anybody to continue to try and keep a golf club there.”
He notes, “Had we been able to run with similar revenue as the first year or two when people were still trying to support it as a club, it might have been a different thing. All odds are against us as a golf club at this time. The long term best use of that property is no longer a golf club.”
Neuser concludes, “We don’t know all of the answers yet, other than we can no longer run it as a viable golf club, and that’s not what’s best for the community. A handful of golfers enjoy it for four months out of the year, why not let the entire community enjoy it 12 months out of the year.”
The bottom line for golf fans is, if you want to play it, you’d better get in soon.
For 64 year old Dave Vonk, he says, “I’m going to retire, but will still be St. Joseph Township Treasurer.” That’s a role he has held for nearly 20 years.
Chris actually worked for Dave originally when he was 13 or 14 years old. Dave had worked at Wyndwicke which became The Oaks Golf Course in St. Joe. Chris quit when Dave was let go and started a year later at Dave Vonk’s Golf Center across the road from The Oaks. He owned that for 15 years and the property itself for 27 years, until he sold it last month. Vonk started his golf career at the age of 12 with Pebblewood in Bridgman, cutting weeds on the new part of the golf course with “a steak knife and a bucket,” that was in 1968.
He graduated Bridgman High School and went to Southwestern Michigan College on a golf scholarship, before entering the professional golf management program at Ferris State University. His first internship was in Yuma, Arizona and he stayed there for six years until Doug Landis lured him back to work at his first pro shop at Wyndwicke, where he stayed for 11 years before opening up his driving range, Dave Vonk’s Golf Center, and ran it for one year before leasing it out so he could handle Berrien Hills.
For Chris Neuser, he has a substantive real estate portfolio especially in Indianapolis, and manages that day to day, with a lot of commercial real estate, and he travels a lot. He’ll certainly keep busy, as he’s only 47 years old.