New management at Cherokee golf course
Sequoyah National Golf Club has come out in the red every year since it first opened in 2009, but the Cherokee golf course’s new general manager Kenny Cashwell, of Sequoia Golf Management, thinks that’s a norm that can be reversed.
“Absolutely,” he said of the club’s potential to turn a profit. “We anticipate being close year one. It’s very possible we may get there.”
Sequoia Golf Management is an Atlanta-based company whose larger parent company, ClubCorp, manages 210 golf courses across the country.
“We have 25,000 member families in greater Atlanta, and we anticipate trying to attract them to the area,” said Cashwell, who is also a Class A PGA member. “They will have places to stay. Obviously, they’ll all eat something, so we hope that will be a boost to the area economy.”
The course will look to draw on more than just the company’s Atlanta member base. They also want to become a day trip destination for people who live in the area and draw visitors over from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
But first, Cashwell said, the course will have to make some improvements to its product and gain the trust of customers looking for a quality place to play golf. That starts with grass.
“The golf course took a tough summer beating from the heat, and we have literally reseeded everything,” Cashwell said. “As opposed to years in the past, we put down the grass that’s actually supposed to be used in the fairways.”
Previously, the heat-sensitive rye grass had been used, making for a less-than-ideal course when hot weather hit. Course superintendent Brannon Burnes has been working to replace that with low-mow bluegrass, which is better suited to Cherokee’s climate — heat-tolerant but also cold-tolerant enough that, Cashwell explained, “when it’s 30 for a high it won’t be so angry that it goes away. It will just be cold like the rest of us.”
Along with the reseeding, Cashwell said, Burnes and his staff will be going “sprinkler to sprinkler” to deal with irrigation issues.
“We have to earn it [customer trust], and right now they’re skeptical,” Cashwell said.
The former management had come under fire from tribal council members who felt that the course should have been further along the road to becoming profitable. The course was opened in 2009 as an amenity for tribal members and a draw for tourists, but tribal council was growing tired of propping it up with tribal funds.
“After having the budget season that we’ve had, I don’t feel like we can support this,” former Tribal Council Member B. Ensley said at a 2012 council meeting.
Meanwhile, previous manager Ryan Ott had asserted that golf courses are expensive to maintain and therefore don’t work well as standalone entities. Most have some kind of country club, restaurant or upscale real estate development surrounding them to help shoulder the cost.
Cashwell, however, presented a different outlook.
“We definitely don’t say it’s a detriment, although that makes it easy for some courses,” he said of the neighborhood- or country club-centered business model. “It just makes us have to have a different model. We’re a resort club for folks to come visit.”
Originally, the tribe had been giving the course an annual contribution to keep it afloat, $1.2 million according to previous reporting by The Smoky Mountain News, as well as a $500,000 line of credit. But tribal council had talked about the need to lower those numbers and wean the course off of outside support.
“The other management group just wasn’t working out, and it was time for us to try whatever we needed to try to get that thing up and open to a level that reflected positively on the tribe,” said Councilwoman Teresa McCoy.
The Tribal Finance Office keeps budgetary information private and so would not release information about the current subsidy agreement or confirm what the subsidy had been historically. Though Cashwell said the course does have a bank account provided by the tribe, he said that the account is still being set up and it is unclear how much is in it, or what the process would be for any funds to be released.
“I’ve never been to a place where they say, ‘Here’s a giant chunk of money,’” he said.
Not that the road to springtime greenery will come cheap. Cashwell said there’s lots of work to do between now and then.
“That’s priority one, is get the greens and the tees in condition, restore the fairways and in the spring we will begin aggressively marketing the course,” he said.