ITHACA, NY – It’s no secret that the golf industry has been in decline in recent decades. Prior to the sharp rise in the number of players during the “social distancing” of COVID, for which the long-term impact on interest had yet to be determined, the number of active golfers in the United States had fallen 22 percent since the early 2000s, and 200 golf courses, Many of them are private country clubs, which have been failing every year.
That same foreboding air lingered around the Country Club in Ithaca. Located at 189 Pleasant Grove Road and spanning the town of Ithaca and the village of Cayuga Heights, membership and revenue have shrunk dramatically compared to the high-water mark fifty years ago, and club membership has declined locally since the 2000s. The 2014 Ithaca City Comprehensive Plan extensively researched “what if” scenarios for redevelopment and guidance in the event of a shutdown.
But in the past two years, there has been a renewed sense of optimism. For example, since 2021, the golf club has come under new ownership and a new name – local CEO and longtime club member Sean Whitaker purchased the property and named it “RaNic Golf Course”, after his two sons Rachel and Nicholas.
For example, golf course business operations are also developing. The plans focus less on sponsored tournaments and the “nineteenth hole” drinks served to annoying customers. The stadium and club restaurant are open to the public (there is still a membership option that offers full golf perks plus discounts on amenities). A golf program for juniors has been launched.
Ultimately, Whitaker’s long-term goal is to transform the site into a mixed-use haven. This will include the course and the restaurant, but a boutique hotel to serve out-of-town visitors and even on-site condominiums for those who want to live next door to where they play.
As currently planned, the project calls for a 30-room boutique hotel, four cabana/cabin style condominiums, 36 townhouses (1,200-1,600 square feet, mostly two-bedroom), and several existing home lots. Ways to be sold to others to develop it. The club will be revamped with rich fall colors and finishes by Kyi Gyaw Interiors. If the hotel is a strong financial performer, a shallow car park may be developed into an additional 22-room suite at a later date.
The practical part of this approach is that it supports golf club operations. Selling a few lots on the periphery of the property provides a boost to short-term income to pay for renovations, as does the initial sale of townhouses. The apartments also pay a regular fee and offer their residents some long-term stability for membership. The hotel/hostel provides a source of income for tourists and visitors, although it can be difficult because boutique hospitality operations tend to require a certain economy at scale to cover staff and maintenance costs (hence it is 30 rooms rather than much fewer).
Noah Demarst, of local planning and architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, is responsible for creating Whitaker’s plans. Demarest’s academic major in landscape architecture is golf course design, and he is a former PGA trainee.
“The hotel is a stand-alone piece and will finance itself,” Demarst said. “But to make the needed improvements, it has to be more than just a restaurant and a course. It has struggled in the past years. By introducing housing, it is helping the overall financial model. It is also building a golf-focused community and membership, which has been lost over the years.” Membership has been significantly reduced since its height in the 1960s or 1970s. This is a way to revitalize the golf course.”
There is a lot of work to be done on the planning side – mixed-use facilities spanning two municipalities are no easy feat. In order to build what they want to build, a Planned Development Zone (PDZ), similar to a city’s PUD, is required. The PDZ allows the developer to submit his zoning for consideration and, if approved, can propose a development that complies with the approved zoning. Do-it-yourself zoning, in a sense, if you can justify to the community that the benefits of the project deserve the approval of the PDZ.
“PDZ is required mainly because of the use of the hotel we are proposing, but also because of the use of the townhouse. There could be an alternative approach to homes; in the city of Ithaca they have a cluster zoning regulation that allows for this kind of denser housing. But in the village (Cayuga Heights) , they don’t allow the use of a hotel anywhere in the village. That’s kind of driving it on the village side. From a city point of view, it’s a big enough project, an important project, that should be seen as its own PDZ,” Demarest said.
“The comprehensive city plan specifically identifies uses of hospitality as a preferred use in the unfortunate alternative if the golf course fails, as well as housing. The plan hoped, however, that this did not happen, and also identified hospitality as a solution. We feel we fit the goals of the comprehensive plan” .
According to Demarst, a possible approach given the inter-municipal aspect is that Cayuga Heights Village will provide input as a “participating agency” and allow the city to manage the SEQR environmental review process as the lead agency. Zoning must be approved prior to any revision of the site plan. But there is some overlap in the process, in that actual development plans are explicitly known to be approved by city authorities and employees during the PDZ phase – they know what is in the works and can provide feedback to reshape and reorient plans before the site plan review begins.
“The units we put into the PDZ code will be the final count. I think if we settle on eight (townhouses) in the village, it will be eight. We focus on the final unit count,” Demarst said.
This is really important, because Cayuga Heights Village is considering halting development due to sewage capacity concerns. Demarst noted that this influences RaNic’s proposal in that the village gets handles on expected sewage use and allocates what they comfortably can afford to known projects.
The development team hopes they can get the PDZ and site plan approved by the city and village in time to begin construction next spring. Therefore, they will have to join a number of meetings – city council, village council, planning council – every now and then. The exact site plan should be completed by the fall of this year.
Under Whitaker’s direction, Ithaca Country Club, now known as RaNic, has begun a new chapter, by becoming more involved with the public and offering a fresh approach to its lively country club setting. The larger plan as a place to stay and a place to live is more risky, but with the potential to continue operations of golf clubs for years to come. Plenty of time to work on a few more rides on the trails.
revision: Village capacity problems are related to sewage/sewage, not water. Audio regrets the error.