Tourists could play on a copy of historic course for far lower cost
After the project was stalled for more than two years by the state bureaucracy, Michigan may soon be home to a full-sized replica of St. Andrews, the ancient Scottish golf course. While the developer remains confident, others are keeping their fingers crossed. Golf industry experts believe it could be the first-ever attempt to create a copy of any of the world’s most famous courses, let alone what may be the most legendary.
The proposed new tourist attraction would be created near Oscoda.
In early 2009, golf course owner and developer Boyd S. Aldridge told a Michigan House committee about his plans for a St. Andrews replica. Aldridge wanted to build it on state-owned land in Iosco County. He said he didn't want any money or special favors from the state — just the opportunity to purchase the land.
Aldridge envisioned building the course on 475 acres located along Lake Huron near Oscoda. Only 1 percent of Iosco County is urban, and most of that small portion consists of tourist and resort attractions. The prospective St. Andrews site is amongst the county's lake shores.
The committee hearing more than two years ago was over legislation that would have allowed the sale of the land to Aldridge. But the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), then under the authority of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, opposed the sale. There was some local opposition as well. The legislation was stopped and the golf course wasn't built.
But today, Aldridge says he believes the only thing standing in the way of his plans is that he doesn't have time at the moment to move forward with them.
“I've been told they [the state] will now sell the land to me,” Aldridge says of the change of attitude. “They want me to get the land appraised. To be honest, the real thing holding it up right now is that, we [his company] went back into manufacturing in 2010, and I'm just too busy right now. But I plan on moving ahead with it in the fall.”
Back in 2009, Aldridge told the House committee that he estimated his St. Andrews replica would draw about 23,000 golfers each year. Now, two years later, he said he still thinks it would be a big tourist draw for Michigan.
“We wouldn't be talking about doing it if we didn't think it was more than worth the effort,” Aldridge said. “Almost every golfer would want to play St. Andrews. Some would go up and play it and criticize it and say it wasn't as good as the real thing. Others would like it. But almost everybody will want the experience of playing it. What we'll be offering is a chance for people to play it for about $8,000 less than what it would cost them to go to the original.”
However, it is now somewhat uncertain where it might be built. As he waited out the DNR’s reluctance to sell the land, Aldridge began looking to another state where his dream could be realized and is now considering his options. Whenever and wherever his “new” St. Andrews is placed, it will come with a story about the conflict between land use policy and jobs, and how a change of administrations in Lansing can alter the balance between the two.
Michigan Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, represents the area where the prospective course would be located, and he is monitoring the situation. He remains confident but cautious that the change of attitude by the state will make the difference.
“I think when we see these opportunities for win-win situations, it's important that we demonstrate a real desire to produce a positive result,” Moolenaar said. “We need to keep sportsmen and sportswomen of all kinds in mind when we consider our resources and the opportunity for recreation. I'm very pleased to see how this has been going so far, and I'm glad to see that the new administration is trying to find a win-win solution.”
“It's his (Aldrige's) vision,” Moolenaar continued. “Hopefully a way will be found that allows him to pursue it and everyone involved to benefit.”
Aldridge, who resides in Lake Orion but owns golf courses in both Southeast and Northeast Michigan, said he isn't worried about state officials delaying his plans or pulling back on the promise to sell him the land.
“No, I don't think so,” Aldridge said. “We have a great sympathetic governor now in Rick Snyder. I'm not worried about that. But I'm not really excited about a few things that have happened locally up there. You know, this (the replica) could be built anywhere. We're also interested in a chance we have to build it in Illinois.”
Aldridge declined to say exactly what concerns he was referring to with the Michigan location and instead noted that he thinks the people of the Oscoda area were “great.”
What are the chances that he'll decide to build the course in Illinois?
“I'd still say that Oscoda is our first choice,” Aldridge said. “I just have to get the time to get it going up there.”
But when asked what would have happened if Michigan government had been willing to sell him the land back in 2009, Aldridge had a simple answer.
“It would be done,” Aldridge said. “Someone would be playing on it right now.”
Although it might have only been percolating back in 2009, there are indications that the issue of land hoarding by the state is now reaching critical mass in Lansing.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, has sponsored Senate Bill 248, which proposes to cap the amount of land that the DNR can own or control at 4.6 million acres. The Senate has already passed the bill and sent it to the House.
The vote in the Senate was mostly along party lines, with all Democrats voting against it. Two Republicans voted with the Democrats and against establishing the cap: Howard Walker of Traverse City and Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton
“The reason we need a cap is because of the amount of land the state owns in Michigan,” Casperson said. “When you combine that with what the federal government controls and the commercial forests it's a huge amount. It would be a little bit different if that land was being held so that the public could experience the great outdoors, but it isn't. A lot of the more recent purchases by the state seem to be aimed at simple preservation that involves restrictions on use.”
Casperson also proposes that putting more land in private hands would be good for the state’s bottom line.
“Then there's the problem of the lost revenues to local governments,” Casperson continued. “The state pays a lower tax cost through PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) than a commercial developer would pay.”
Yet another issue is the advisability of the state hanging on to vast tracts of land without allowing even small portions of it to be developed in areas starving for jobs.
Most of Northern Michigan suffers from perpetually high unemployment that is particularly sensitive to seasonal labor opportunities such as those offered by golf courses and other tourist and recreational businesses. For instance, the latest available unemployment rate for Iosco County was 12.8 percent in May of 2011. Over the winter, the unemployment rate in Iosco County hit 17.3 percent.
In addition to establishing a cap, Casperson's bill would require the DNR to offer for sale at a public auction tax reverted land that had not sold after six months. It would also require the DNR to consider the expenses it would incur in managing new land and the loss of tax revenue to local governments, before acquiring surface rights.
Presuming Aldridge actually creates his St. Andrews replica, it would likely be a newsworthy achievement.
“I don't think I've ever heard of a replica of an entire golf course being built,” said Steve Harmon, editor of Golfweek magazine. “That's interesting. Many courses create replicas of famous signature holes, but I don't think I know of any replicas of entire courses.”
Brad Klein of Golfweek, one of the nation's top golf course architects, said he knows of no one else having tried to do what Aldridge is proposing.
“I'm not aware of anyone who has copied an entire course,” Klein said.
Klein added that anyone who attempted to replicate St. Andrews would be setting the bar very high in terms of course design.
“There's the issue of replicating the sandy soil and the unique elevation of St. Andrews,” Klein said. “In addition to that, you might be able to copy all the holes, but doing them in the same sequence could be difficult. I certainly wouldn't say that it can't be done but it would be a challenge. I wish him luck.”