New Management Team Named At Inniscrone

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer of Chester County Press

In a five to zero unanimous decision, it was announced at the London Grove Township Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 29 that the Heathland Hospitality Group has been awarded the management contract for the Inniscrone Golf Course, which became effective Dec. 1.

The township entered into the interim agreement for the sum of 2.5 percent of the course's revenue for December, which is estimated to be under one thousand dollars.

Under the terms of the agreement, Heathland will enter into an initial one-year term with the township to manage all components of the course – which will include an initial 60-day "audition" phase – with the right to renew for two additional one-year terms at the sole discretion of the board of supervisors. In doing so, the township is severing ties with & TTEE, its current management team, run by Lori Van Sickle, general manager and director of golf, and her husband Michael of KTEE, who served as the course's director of operations. Although they will have no management duties, the current management team will have their contract honored and paid through the remainder of 2011. A separation agreement between the township and TTEE and KTEE is currently being finalized.

According to township board member Dave Connors, who also chairs the township's golf committee, the committee received proposals from eight candidates, and conducted interviews with both Heathland and the Ron Jaworski Golf Management Company. "Although both presentations were outstanding, I was impressed with my initial contact with Heathland at Inniscrone," Connors said. "We spent about two hours with them walking the course and the knowledge I gained from that really impressed me. They put together a great proposal to the board and essentially outlined what they would do from day one in marketing the course."

The Erdenheim, PA-based Heathland group is a management service organization who provides management, human resources administration and hospitality services for several private clubs and corporate dining services throughout Pennsylvania and Delaware, including the Torresdale-Frankford Golf Club in Northeast Philadelphia. The group also consults with several other clubs throughout Philadelphia, Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio.

Under the agreement, the course will be managed and maintained by Tom Bolko, who comes to Inniscrone following a 21-year career at the Coatesville Country Club.

"When we walked the course for the first time, I said, 'This is the best golf course in Chester County, and we wanted to be involved in the process," said Bob Wurtz, Healthland executive director. "It's a wonderful asset that needed to be re-branded. I saw the possibility of greater exposure, marketing, increased rounds of golf, and I was determined to make it happen under our management."

The selection of the Heathland group was made, in large measure, in an attempt to stabilize a rocky history of previous Inniscrone ownership and management. During its first ten years, five owners of the course came and went, each unable to recoup their initial investment. In April 2009, the Township became the course's sixth owner, purchasing Inniscrone for $750,000 and signing a contract with the management group KTEE & TTEE to operate the course on behalf of the Township as a public daily fee facility. Soon after its' purchase, the course operated at a profit to the Township, with KTEE & TTEE turning in a $106,000 profit. In 2010, the course operated at a $60,447 loss in 2010.

This year, the report said that Inniscrone is expected to operate at a significant loss, with much of the blame targeted to a dwindling membership. According to Connors, Inniscrone has only 77 members, which generates a revenue of about $120,000.

Although board opinions differed as to the transition period between management teams, it was decided by a 4-1 vote to pass the management transition to Heathland effective Dec. 1. According to township solicitor Bill Lincke, the board considered two ways of terminating the relationship with the current management administration: by a default motion and by a 60-day termination. "We decided to do it the smoother way, with the 60-day termination, but that being the case, it's going to take an agreement on their part to have an earlier termination than 60 days," he said. "This is going to be a two-way discussion, not a dictation. Hopefully the discussion will be good and thus the transition will be good."
This announcement arrives at a time when the township's plans are to borrow about $500,000 in the form of a bank loan, in order to pay for improvements to the course. Connors said that the township's plan is to first see what plans the Heathland group will make before making any investment with the township's money.

The selection of the Heathland group comes in concert with the creation of a 20-page, five-year plan developed by the township golf committee this year that is designed to improve the physical structure of the course, make it more accessible to the public and turn its financial picture from a money-loss operation and potential tax burden to a profitable, self-sustaining business operation. Under the plan, Inniscrone would see a gentle yearly increase in income from memberships, driving range and lesson fees, as well as additional income from food and beverage services and sales from its pro shop. A five-year projected financial forecast in the plan calls for the course to earn a net profit of $18,331 in 2012, seen mostly in shrinking the course payroll by over $150,000 a year, while also increasing its green fees. By 2016, the plan predicts that total revenues will expect to be $1.071 million, close to $55,000 over anticipated expenses.

The future of Inniscrone may not only hinge on getting it back on its financial feet, but making the course a little easier to play. Designed by course architect Gil Hanse to be a challenging course filled with severe fairways and angles meant to attract experienced golfers, it has become to many an 18-hole maze of high slope ratings, deep sand traps, sloping greens, cross bunkering in fairways and berms with tall fescues. In his report on Inniscrone, golf course architect Tom Jackson wrote that "for the higher handicap player, which is the largest market, it becomes an impossible situation and they will likely choose another course that is more 'player friendly' in the future." Jackson recommended hole-by-hole re-designs of the course, which included the realignment of holes, adding tees, correcting drainage, installing catch basins, eliminating sand traps, removing trees and stumps, repairing cart paths and upgrading the parking lot and cart storage area.

Heathland will have yet another uphill climb: figuring out a way to increase course membership, and do so in a time of dwindling interest in golf. According to figures provided by the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the number of people who golf regularly has decreased from 30 million to 26 million since 2000, and those who play golf 25 or more times a year dropped from close to 7 million in 2000 to a little over 4.5 million in 2005. One suggestion, the committee wrote, will be to attract non-golfers to Inniscrone, a demographic designed to change the Club's identity from one of exclusiveness to inclusiveness. As part of a proposed marketing strategy to draw non-golfers, the plan suggests that the course's cart paths be converted into walking paths in non-golfing periods.

Now that they're running the course, Heathland is not wasting any time introducing itself to its new neighbors. It plans to host two open houses in December and create a data base of township residents and members, and on-going promotions and events will be posted on Inniscrone's web site and linked to the township's web site. "It comes down to people, service and the quality of both, and we'll be very focused on delivering and exceeding every expectations," Wurtz said. "We have a goal and it is to provide people with a great experience, whether it is golf or a special event."

On a long-term scale – one that may take as much as 10 years to finalize – the committee recommended that the upper restaurant area of the course be converted into an upscale, year-round dining spot for the general public, similar to the Farmhouse restaurant at the Loch Nairn Country Club and the Grille at Hartefeld Country Club. Wurtz said that while building a full-service restaurant is not in the immediate plans, Heathland will use its catering talent to introduce family nights, monthly barbecues for the entire public, wine dinners and provide the use of the clubhouse for specially catered events, as well as offer food selections for golfers. In addition, Wurtz said that under the new management, Heathland will offer free introductory lessons, "to get them to come out and try the game," he said.

"I believe Heathland will bring the operation back into the black, make it revenue neutral to the township, improve the quality of the course, and have a commitment to the community as well," Connors said. "We're not just talking about the golfers anymore. We're talking about getting everyone to become a part of Inniscrone, to become a part of the asset."