Trent Ernst, Editor
The story of the Tumbler Ridge Golf and Country Club has been, in recent years, a story of epic failures and modest successes.
For the last few years, the District has been trying different iterations on running the golf course, from trying to sell the course to leasing out the course.
But when former leaseholder Graham Johnson left town, breaking a five year lease with the town, the District decided to try something new.
“This year, we moved away from the lease concept, which was the underpinning from previous agreement into operating agreement idea,” says District CAO Barry Elliot. “The District is still responsible for the golf course, but we have a separate company who have come in to run it.”
That company, Screaming Eagle Ventures, a partnership between Wendy Truit and Terry Vandenbosch, will be looking after the clubhouse, with Truit responsible primarily for the dining facility and Vandenbosch looking after the pro shop. Groundskeeping and other duties are being managed by the District.
Elliott says that, under the terms of the agreement, all revenue collected returns to the District. “The District pays all the expenses, and every month we do reconciliation and do an 80-20 split,” he says. “The operator gets 80, which they use to pay payroll. Rest is theirs to offset other costs. They carry their own third party liability insurance, but that’s about it. We maintain the building insurance, utilities, telephone, IT and any of the building-related costs, as well as gas for golf carts…that sort of thing.”
Elliott says that, while the idea of selling the course may have been talked about in the past, those discussions have not taken place in the four years he has been with the District. “From my perspective, Council would very much like to see a group from the community operate the golf course. It’s a critical entity in town and Council doesn’t want to see it fail.”
Under the terms of the current agreement, Screaming Eagle Ventures has signed a one year agreement with the District, with renewal options. “2015 is a year where we’re just guessing what might happen in TR,” says Elliott. “They’ve taken the initiative to jump in with both feet, and they’re doing an admirable job. But next year? Who knows? Everyone is hoping for a success with this iteration. Council is particularly pleased about this operator, because they know they are dealing with people that are committed to the community and passionate about the golf course.”
Passionate about the golf course is an understatement in the case of Vandenbosch, considering that he helped build the thing. In the mid-1980s, Vandenbosch and a group of other passionate golfers formed an association to build the course.
“Back in the mid-80s, the town was prospering,” says Vandenbosch. “We had a bunch of avid golfers in the town, but we didn’t have a golf course. We were very fortunate that a fellow by the name of Bill Fleming was the manager of Bullmoose Mines. John Sanders was also an avid golfer. We formed an association. We were five executives and five directors. We went out and sourced money to support the course, through lotto BC, through sports Canada. Once we had some money, Bullmoose and Quintette donated the equipment, and a lot of the operators would come out and do the development of the course, which made it a lot easier.”
On July 22, 1989, the Tumbler Ridge Golf and Country Club opened, the conclusion of a process that had taken years. “The clubhouse got built through a lot of government grant money,” says Vandenbosch. “A lot of people donated a whole lot of time and effort to get this place up and running.”
At the time the course was run as an association. “We managed the course,” he says. “We hired our own groundskeepers out of our coffers. We had some struggles. Because we didn’t have any financial backing, there were some years that it was a little slim.”
But when the mines closed down, a lot of the executives on the golf association left time. “People got transferred,” says Vandenbosch, “or they found jobs elsewhere. We were very grateful that the District stepped in and decided to manage the course and look after it, or else it wouldn’t be what it is today. If they had even left it for just one year without any maintenance, we’d have lost the course.
In 2009, the District farmed out the management of the Golf Course to Golden West Golf Group, the first attempt at having an external operator look after the course. It didn’t go well, with Golden West leaving town at the end of the year.
Since that time, the District has tried a variety of models in operating the golf course, none of which has proven successful. Elliott says that hopefully, this time, they’ve hit on a winning formula. “This agreement needs an opportunity to work,” he says. “There’s real potential here for a company. Right now the District is assuming all the cost for grounds maintenance, but we really want to see how this relationship develops. Beyond that, there’s been increase focus on the condition of the golf course. That’s going to continue.”
He says part of the secret could be Truit and Vandenbosch’s commitment to the town itself. “I think [finding local people] has shown itself to be a very important aspect in the recruitment process,” says Elliott. “What we’re finding, is skill sets can be learned by someone with the wherewithal and interest to learn. The local aspect is definitely a strong contender. We haven’t been as successful as we thought we’d be looking outside of the community.”
As someone who has been involved in the course since its inception, Vandenbosch has seen it through both the good times and the bad. More importantly, he’s seen what has happened when previous operators have come in, and he knows that, with both mines closed, he’s not expecting to be rolling in the money. “My first priority was to get the course to a place where it’s something that people enjoy playing on. That’s respected around the Peace and that we’re starting to get people come here to play. The Geopark will also attract people here, and as long as they see that it’s managed well, it will attract people.
“The mines, when they open, will be a bonus for us. That’s only going to bring more people to town. More golfers to town. In the lean years right now, our goal is to keep our staff local, keep it very regimented, make sure the hours of operation are matched by hours of service. We’re working with the District around getting the course in top shape. My role in the game is to sell this course. There’s a market around the Peace to bring people here. It just needs to be marketed properly.”
The transition to the new operating agreement has not been without its hurdles, mostly technological. The old computers, says Vandenbosch, just weren’t up to running the 2015 iteration of the golf course management software, and the Point of Sales system was a nightmare to get up and running. “We tried putting the new software on these old computers,” says Vandenbosch, “But any time we tried to do anything, it just sat and spun.”
“We had to manually enter everything,” said Vandenbosch about the first month or so of the season. “There’s nothing wrong with that. We did it for years. The issue was cash. Nobody carries cash anymore. That was costing us money.”
But, says Vandenbosch, the rough edges are starting to be smoothed out, hurdles overcome, and difficulties managed. The Interac system is working, and everything is in place for a fine season of golfing.
“Our goal is to build this place back up to where it’s supposed to be. I’m planning on being here for the long term. We’re both locals and we’re not going anywhere.”