HISTORY: Grand Traverse Resort & Spa: One Man's Vision
The "greening" of northern Michigan, the establishment of the region as a major golf destination all came about because of the vision of one man. Paul Nine, an attorney from the Bloomfield Hills area, had a dream, and it became a reality when he built the six-story Grand Traverse Hilton Hotel in 1980 and three years later brought in Jack Nicklaus to build The Bear. It started a golf course building boom that saw the Wolverine State rise to the forefront of the golfing world in building new golf courses; a boom that is just starting to wane.
There were other resorts in northern Michigan that tapped the golf market a little earlier. Boyne USA opened courses at both the Highlands and the Mountain in the mid-to-late 1970s. Antrim Dells, designed by Bruce and Jerry Matthews, was completed in 1978, but when Nine brought Nicklaus in to build The Bear, it ushered in the era of "signature" golf courses for the northern "tip of the mitt." Arnold Palmer followed a year later with the Legend at Shanty Creek, and the list goes on and on--and includes Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player, Chick Harbert and Gary Koch. The list of golf course architects that have put their stamp on northern Michigan reads like a Who's Who list: Robert Trent and Rees Jones, Tom Doak, Rick Smith, Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills and Pete Dye, to name just a few.
Grand Traverse Resort, now a part of the prestigious collection of worldwide resorts owned by KSL Recreation Corporation, had very humble beginnings. It opened in 1967 as a local nine-hole golf course, "with a small pro shop and a liquor license that I didn't even want," said former owner Ron Green, who later worked for Nine during the building of the hotel and expansion of the golf course to 18 holes. "I wasn't a night person and saw no need for it."
Nine did, and in 1973 he purchased the Acme Public Golf Course, as it was then called, and the Sandtrap Restaurant, which Green and a partner had built but never opened. In 1977 plans were announced for the building of the hotel and the addition of a back nine holes to what became known as Spruce Run, which was designed by William Newcomb in 1979.
"It was a crazy time," recalled Green. "I was supposed to be the chief engineer on the job and adding a second nine holes to the existing golf course at the time. Paul was going back and forth between his downstate office and here, and I was trying to keep them on schedule with the hotel and overseeing the course construction. One day I would have 14 holes done on the course, and the next I would be back down to eight. They kept moving the hotel location and adding out buildings.
"Amazingly we got it all built. If it had been anybody but Nine trying to pull all this together and secure the funding for his grand plans, it probably wouldn't have been built," Green chuckled. "He was a talker and a mover with lots of dreams."
Green left the resort in 1980 to first build Green Hills Golf Course near Traverse City and later, in 1993, built Grand View Golf Course near Kalkaska. He returned to GTR last year to work part-time, in his retirement. Green hired the person he now works for, Paul Galigan, the head of golf course operations, in 1979.
In a recent ineterview, Nine recalled those early days. "Marketing was the key to the success of such a venture, and golf was going to be the vehicle. I wanted the biggest name in golf and a course that would make a statement," said the flamboyant Nine. "There wasn't a bigger name at the time than Jack Nicklaus."
Purportedly he wanted the Golden Bear to build the toughest golf course he could, and they accomplished the feat. When The Bear was completed, it had a slope rating of 144 and a reputation to match. Completed in 1985, it set the tone for the plethora of golf courses that would follow in its wake. About the same time Nine accomplished another first when he opened the Tower, which housed more rooms and a restaurant and lounge on top. Connected to the hotel, the 17-story building was the tallest building in all of northern Michigan at the time. Hard to miss, it can be seen from up to 20 miles away.
Nine and Grand Traverse Resort--it became independent in 1983--literally put the Grand Traverse region on national and international travel maps. His sense of what it took to market the area and GTR was accurate. Over the next few years he brought the Society of American Travel Writers in for an annual meeting and conference, the National Governor's Conference and a couple of national golfing events--the Michigan Bell Skins Game and the Ameritech Senior Open Championship. At the same time more condominium clusters, a sports complex and the massive 25,000-square-foot Governor's Hall--a conference center--were added to the resort.
More land was purchased around the resort bringing its total acreage to around 1,400 acres. Announcements were made that two more signature golf courses would be added. Life was good, but all the expansion was taking its toll on GTR's assets. A couple of things that happened in the 1980s eventually ended up affecting the economic well being of the resort, according to Nine.
"We were financing a lot of our construction in the early 1980s and got caught by the high interest rates and economic downturn in the early part of that decade. In the mid-80s, tax laws changed, which took away some of the advantages of owning a second home and that hurt condominium sales."
In 1992 the resort developer filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, and a year later General Retirement System of the City of Detroit, GTR's principle lender, took over ownership.
Not sitting idle, the Pension Fund continued to expand the resort by adding more condominiums and luxury home sites and announced in 1995 a master plan that included two new signature golf courses--to be designed by Gary Player and Lee Trevino--and a new clubhouse. Groundbreaking for the Wolverine--the new Player course--took place in 1997. Later that year KSL took ownership and renamed it the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, adding a huge 100,000-square-foot spa complex in the area of the Sports Complex.
KSL, a California-based corporation in the middle of a three-year, $18 million upgrade of the resort, is intent on improving and renovating what it has, according to GM Paul McCormick. "The outside facility seems complete. We have three outstanding golf courses, a new clubhouse and the Jim McLean Golf School. At this point we are concentrating on renovating the Tower and hotel guestrooms and adding new shops. We want to maximize what we have. Certainly Paul Nine created quite a resort. He was a visionary ahead of his time."
KSL also has sold off some of the acreage that was set aside for a fourth golf course. "We just felt with what we have and the number of nearby golf courses, that we had plenty of choices to offer our golfing guests," McCormick pointed out. "We still have a little over 900 acres and room to develop another course down the road if we feel a need for it. The land we sold was to local farmers, and they will be growing cherries on it, which preserves the integrity of the land...agriculture, green space and views."
Even the old Sandtrap Restaurant, which also served as the resort's pro shop for years, was recently sold. It's a new millennium, a new era and a new owner, but the "heart and soul" of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa hasn't changed. It's still the vision that entrepreneur Paul Nine saw almost 30 years ago when he first purchased the little nine-hole Acme Golf Course and a restaurant that hadn't even opened yet.
Some men dream and some men make dreams come true. Nine was among the latter group. "I look back at what we accomplished, and I'm very proud of the Grand Traverse Resort and what it symbolizes. I still believe in that area and what the future holds for it."
The Grand Traverse Resort will certainly stand as a legacy to that dream.
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