By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
ROME (AP) — The Laurentide Ice Sheet did quite a number on Wisconsin.
As it advanced from the north, it created Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which, at 550,000 acres, was about four times the size of modern-day Lake Winnebago, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. As the Green Bay lobe of the glacier melted, a massive crack formed that rapidly drained the lake to the south, giving rise to distinctive rock formations in the Wisconsin Dells and towering bluffs along the Lower Wisconsin River.
The old lake bed remains, along with piles of sand and a spectacular opportunity — hiding in plain sight for the past 14,000 years — that could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.
Mike Keiser, one of the country’s most accomplished golf-course developers, wants to build up to five golf courses on 1,700 acres of land between Wisconsin Rapids and Adams-Friendship. In addition, he plans to restore an adjacent 7,200 acres for public use and bring it back to its natural state with jack pine, hill oak and prickly pear cactus that would improve the habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly and Kirtland’s warbler.
But the ambitious Sand Valley Golf Resort project also has community leaders here scrambling to improve infrastructure and amenities for the well-heeled who think nothing of spending $10,000 in a day to charter a cross-country jet and play a few rounds of golf. For years, the region has used its sandy soil to grow potatoes, cranberries and pine trees for pulp for the paper industry. The golf development is adding to that economy.
“The people of central Wisconsin do not have a sniff about how uniquely aware the rest of the country is about Sand Valley,” said Rick Bakovka, president of the Regional Economic Growth Initiative of Central Wisconsin. “It’s the biggest economic opportunity for our area in the last 50 years.”
And it’s all because of the sand.
In the early 2000s, Craig Haltom, who was working for Madison-based Oliphant Golf Construction, began scouring the state looking for a site for a golf course. What he found was a large tract of land in Adams County owned by a timber company. But when the financial markets began to sour in 2007, Oliphant went out of business. His plans, although set aside, were not forgotten.
Haltom ultimately got in touch with Keiser, who bought the property in 2013 and recruited 160 founder investors who agreed to each put $50,000 into the project. Haltom and Mike Oliphant are also working together again and lead The Oliphant Cos., which began building Sand Valley in 2014 without an ocean or Great Lakes view.
“I like to think that we don’t have an ocean, but we used to have something almost as big and that’s left us that same ground that’s so ideal for golf courses,” Keiser told PGA Magazine in October. “It’s sandy, fescue grass grows great, it drains well, and it’s easy to work with when you’re shaping courses.”
The first course, dubbed Sand Valley, designed by the two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw along with Bill Coore, will open for its first full year of play next week. The second course, Mammoth Dunes, designed by David McLay Kidd, will open in June for what is called preview play, and a par-3 course is scheduled to open in 2018.
The property includes two 12-room lodges; four cottages, each with four rooms; a $6 million, 30,000-square-foot clubhouse and lounge with 17 guest rooms; and one of the largest private wastewater-treatment plants in the state.
Town of Rome officials have estimated that the development, along with other housing and business projects nearby that could be pursued because of Sand Valley, could push the value of property in the town from $750 million to over $1 billion by 2025. Starting last Labor Day and continuing through October, players came from 40 states and 10 countries for preview play on the Sand Valley course.
“This is more than just golf. This is a gateway to the rest of the world,” said Bakovka, a lifelong resident of the area who shot his first buck when he was 17 years old on what is now the fifth hole. “The influx of people will lead to economic growth and parallel growth.”
Last fall, 9,000 rounds were played at Sand Valley and 20,000 rounds could be played this year on the development’s two courses, according to Sand Valley estimates. The number of rounds is expected to hit 40,000 in 2018.
Local officials are trying to get a grasp on what that growth can look like for central Wisconsin’s economy.
The region has seen staggering job losses over the past 15 years in the paper industry and is trying to rebrand itself as a tourist destination. But there are concerns about a lack of accommodations, rental cars and restaurants. Then there’s Alexander Field in Wisconsin Rapids. The city-owned airfield last fall saw a steady stream of private planes and jets come through. Some of them were large as a Gulfstream V, ferrying golfers eager to play Keiser’s new course.
“In many ways we’re not prepared for it,” said Jeremy Sickler, the manager of the airport. “The types of services they need, the amount of space they need … that’s why we have long-range plans and some pretty significant funding requests in to the state.”
City officials have identified nearly $7 million in needed airport improvement projects. The recommendations call for adding taxiways, larger aprons, plane-parking areas and fuel storage. In September, fuel sales surged 300 percent at the airport, which has a single, 10,000-gallon underground fuel tank.
The airport’s small terminal building was built in 1973 and looks every bit the part. That’s why a contingent of local elected, administrative and economic development officials from the region are spending most of this week in Bandon, Ore.
The seaside community of slightly more than 3,000 people, 140 miles southwest of Eugene, Ore., and 90 miles north of the California border, is home to Bandon Dunes. Like Sand Valley, the golf mecca is fairly isolated, was developed by Keiser and includes courses designed by McLay Kidd and Crenshaw and Coore. The first of five courses at Bandon Dunes opened in 1999. By 2009, three of its courses were on Golf Magazine’s list of the 50 best-built courses from the past 50 years, and its Pacific Dunes course has been ranked No. 2 in the country.
“It’s incumbent of the local community to really study and understand the impact so that we can be realistic about what those business opportunities and synergies might be,” said Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Zach Vruwink, 29, who was first elected in 2012. “What real growing pains will there be to achieve the support that they need to operate?”
Vruwink is pushing for more economic development to revitalize his city of about 18,000 people, where the local JC Penney is about to close, leaving the future of the Rapids Mall in doubt. There are plans for a $10 million to $20 million downtown housing and commercial development and an $8.5 million regional outdoor aquatics center. Elsewhere, Aspirus Riverview Hospital and Clinic has announced plans last year for $25 million worth of improvements.
Sand Valley could bring the city even more development opportunities.
“For so long the faucet had been turned off,” Vruwink said. “We weren’t investing in our parks, we weren’t investing in quality-of-life amenities, we weren’t investing in community development projects.”
Still, the city has little in the away of lodging aside from budget hotels and motels. The one exception is the Hotel Mead & Conference Center, which has 150 rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space. The city of Nekoosa has plans for a hotel and the town of Rome is working on a plan of its own for lodging, said Mike Miller, who was hired last year as the town’s first administrator, largely because of the Sand Valley project.
In 2015, before Miller’s arrival, the town successfully lobbied the Legislature to change state law to allow a town to create a tax incremental finance district. The town is now providing $12 million in TIF assistance to Sand Valley for development and habitat restoration. The town is spending more than $700,000 to convert Archer Avenue from a narrow dirt road to a wider, paved roadway that will lead from Highway 13 to Sand Valley’s main entrance.
The town has formed its own tourism bureau and just completed a 4,600-square-foot addition to the town library.
It’s also home to the 334-acre Dyracuse Recreational Park for motorbikes and ATVs and the Wisconsin Trapshooters Association, which in 2012 broke ground on a 280-acre center with 30 trap fields. Lake Arrowhead, a 2,500-acre, two-course golf and housing development established in 1975 lies just north of Sand Valley.
“Golf has always been a part of our community, but (Sand Valley officials) found an amazing natural resource and they’ve been able to develop this into something pretty spectacular,” Miller said. “It’s going to put the town of Rome and this region on the map.”
The courses at Sand Valley are built on a bed of sand and bear little resemblance to Wisconsin’s typical public courses: sand proliferates the course, not just in bunkers but through the fescue. Dunes are found alongside fairways, around the clubhouse and right up to the door steps of the Lake Leopold Cottages that can each hold up to eight people and rent for $1,800 a night during peak season.
“Sand is the secret ingredient,” said Murray. “Other courses will truck in millions of dollars of sand to build a comparable course, and we have it right here. Plus, then, the drama of the ridges and valleys out here add to the aesthetics. The sunsets out here are something people are really going to remember.”