A club that rode the wave of the Phoenix-area development boom—and crash—is now out in front of the recovery effort.
When the housing boom of the 2000s raced through Arizona, spawning planned communities and golf courses so fast that they seemed destined to outnumber the cacti, the epicenter of growth was Peoria—a heretofore sleepy town northwest of Phoenix that saw its population soar 50% after 2000 began, to become the state’s ninth biggest city and larger than the Illinois city from which it took its name (Peoria is an Indian term for “prairie fire”).
Blackstone CC AT A GLANCE
In the far northern reaches of Peoria, within the gated community of Blackstone, the boom gave birth in 2006 to Blackstone Country Club, which was instantly established as the upscale leader of the west valley, on par with many of the exclusive clubs of Scottsdale to the east. Blackstone CC proudly featured the first, and still only, Arizona golf course designed by Jim Engh, perhaps the most acclaimed architect of the new millennium. The initiation fee for an equity golf membership at Blackstone CC started at $60,000, then rose to $75,000 when its stunning clubhouse, the Hacienda, opened in January 2007.
“When we started in 2006, real estate in Blackstone was selling on a lottery,” says Membership Director Melissa Barton, a bundle of energy who’s seen it all. “People who bought golf memberships had ‘dibs’ on custom lots. We had about a year and a half of that before the world changed. By fall 2007, things came to a screeching halt.”
Blackstone did not hit the wall alone, but it certainly left some of the most spectacular wreckage. The club wobbled through the depths of the recession with only 50 or so members. That led to a decision, in 2009, through which the “membership documents were revised,” as Melissa Barton puts it—meaning prices were reduced, drastically. Initiation for an equity golf membership fell to $15,000, and a new non-equity membership was introduced at $7,500.
As 2012 arrived in the west valley, however, Blackstone CC was showing many signs it had not only survived the crash, but was poised to reach new heights.
Membership has more than doubled, to 125. At the same time, the developers that own and operate the club—Sunbelt Holdings—agreed to extend the date for turnover to the membership to December 2025.
Bill Griffon, who took over as Blackstone’s General Manager in December 2011, says his most pleasant surprise so far has been “no unpleasant surprises.” In an August 2011 survey, 88% of the membership declared themselves “very or extremely satisfied” with the club and its services, and 89% said they’d recommend it to friends and family. The Blackstone staff, notes Griffon, has “been without a full-time general manager for some time. Despite that, they’ve continued to deliver service.”
A Cal Poly Pomona grad whose experience includes Hyatt Hotels, the Lodge at Sea Island, and the Yellowstone Club in Montana, Griffon is keeping his eyes and ears open and taking lots of notes as he surveys the scene. He says his main goal for his new club is to make Blackstone’s service even better. He plans to restore amenities that were trimmed during hard times—and then some. Here are a few examples from the lists that now fill up his iPad:
- Family-friendly upgrades, such as enhanced food and beverage service at the pools—Blackstone’s membership includes almost 100 children.
- A wine-dispensing system, so the restaurant can serve more wines by the glass.
- Stronger lighting in the now very dim parking area (the better to see serpentine friends that might be warming themselves on the pavement).
- Helping members arrange golf and dining trips to the Napa Valley and other destinations.
- Re-introducing amenities that had to be eliminated during the harder times, and bringing back a full-time shoe room attendant—Griffon’s pet project.
While initiation fees are down, dues at Blackstone have been raised only slightly, to $690 a month. “So we’re trying to marry the cost on a monthly basis with a great experience and value,” Griffon says.
Attracting new members is the other side of the coin, he adds. “As people come into the community, we’ve got to create an environment where people say there’s not a choice—it’s such a value, it’s such a service level, they have to join,” he explains.
Just Getting Started
Blackstone’s 2012 budget is optimistic, projecting revenues of $2.45 million—a 20% across-the-board increase. Meeting that goal will require landing at least 50 new members this year. Membership Director Barton is confident for a couple of reasons: she has “a great product to sell” and, sitting in the club’s Cantina Bar, she hears the sweet sounds of construction from beyond the clubhouse walls. That’s music to her ears, because the vast majority of Blackstone’s members come from the surrounding community.
“You hear hammers in the background—we haven’t heard that for years,” says Barton. “This is a club that’s going to be supported by real estate sales. We really think that’s going to increase this year. I think this club is going to take off, the more homes are sold in Blackstone.”
Blackstone’s food-and-beverage operation, led by F&B Manager Megan Huler and Executive Chef Randy Heltsley, will need to do $650,000 worth of regular dining and special events to hold up its end of the 2012 budget. Huler, who came to Blackstone five years ago from the airline catering business, says most of the 20% revenue increase they’re expected to produce will be member-driven.
“It’s going to have to be 80% member dining,” she explains, “because we only have certain days we can do outside events.” Blackstone offers only outdoor weddings—and in Arizona’s climate, those are only feasible on a limited number of days in spring and fall. A rise in per-person wedding prices from $140 in 2011 to $167 in 2012 will help, but the members are where the real money is.
The first salvo in the campaign to get members to spend more on dining is complete, single-price dinners every Wednesday. The first one, featuring prime rib at $25-30, depending on the size of the cut, drew over 60 diners —definitely “a little bit heavier than the usual Wednesday night,” says a pleased Executive Chef, Randy Heltsley. That was followed the next Wednesday by a seafood dinner that was equally popular. The kitchen will also be happy to be busier on Tuesdays, for a new happy hour.
Heltsley, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, draws further confidence from the artistic freedom to write menus and plan monthly wine dinners that he’s found at Blackstone. Just as importantly, he adds, management “has been very understanding about how food costs can be a little higher than at a restaurant. Their main goal here is to keep people happy.”
Winning the “Engh” Game
The man who will be spending a lion’s share of the club’s 2012 budget—$1.2 million—is Golf Course Superintendent Roger Brashear, who arrived at Blackstone just as the first dirt was moved for the golf course in 2004. Being a superintendent of an Engh-designed course brings special challenges; Engh himself starts a project by telling superintendents that they aren’t going to like him.
The Blackstone course, which is the crown jewel of an Audubon-certified property, perfectly reflects Engh’s design philosophy. “Golf,” says Engh, “is a gathering game. I use extensive mounding, which may bring an errant shot back to the fairway, and the bowled greens gather your ball onto the green.
“However,” Engh continues, “if you miss up the hill, you may have a challenging chip shot from a downhill lie to a green that runs away from you.”
Brashear confirms that these features, along with the big bunkers and dramatic elevation changes that have also become Engh’s calling cards, add difficulties to the maintenance side—but are worth dealing with, to enhance the unique features the course brings to the Arizona golf scene. Further challenges come from the fact that 85% of Blackstone’s members have primary residences in Arizona, so they expect the course to be in great shape year-round.
“Transitions are our hard time,” says Brashear, an Oklahoma State graduate who got his start at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. In October, he says, the course is overseeded wall-to-wall with rye, and closed for 24 days—the price that must be paid to have green grass through the winter.
Then in April, it’s time to go back in the other direction. “We have this lush rye,” says Brashear, “and we have to go back to Bermuda. It’s had a nice plush carpet laying on top of it all winter, rotting it out, so that’s always a challenge.”
Irrigation, of course, is another constant concern in the desert. “Water is always going to be, I’d say, fifteen percent of your budget,” says Brashear. In Blackstone’s case, that would mean an annual water bill approaching $200,000. It’s mostly reclaimed water, and Brashear uses it very carefully. To promote better turf growth, waterings are “deep and infrequent,” and computerized controls help to make sure they hit their intended targets, and nothing else.
“Anything that you water in the desert will grow, and most of the time it’s weeds,” Brashear notes. “If I can’t water that edge perfectly, just for the grass, it’s costing me labor, water, and money.”
Todd Cernohous, Blackstone’s Director of Golf, has been sending players out to enjoy Brashear’s maintenance work since 2008. Named for the black volcanic rock that is indigenous to the Arizona desert, the course, with four sets of tees starting at 4,738 yards and topping out at 7,089, offers stunning mountain views, generous rolling fairways, and undulating, bowled greens that gather approach shots and send them skittering toward the promised land . . . sometimes. “When you finish your round, you have a smile on your face,” says Cernohous.
In 2011, 13,500 rounds were played at Blackstone; 16,000 are projected for this year. Cernohous keeps members interested with a variety of events and competitions. A Ryder Cup-format tournament brings out Blackstone’s international flavor—there are enough Canadian members to field a team.
Thanks to the many families in the club—the average member age is 50, low by Phoenix standards—there is also a substantial junior golf program. Blackstone also welcomes reciprocal play from outside the Phoenix metro area, and Cernohous actively recruits outside events for Mondays, when the club is closed. These golf outings help the bottom line, and give potential members a chance to fall in love with the club (living in Blackstone is not a requirement to join, and the recent completion of a freeway exit a mile from the club has cut fifteen minutes off the drive from the population centers to the east).
In his first full year at Blackstone, Bill Griffon is optimistic that adding more golf memberships this year than last “is a very real possibility.”
“I’m hoping the service levels we have delivered can continue to be enhanced,” he says. “I’d like to see a true economic recovery where the housing market begins to take off again.”
The builders now hammering within Blackstone’s 560 acres must also think such a revival is possible—they are adding sales people. Any kind of renewed housing activity would make the club’s prospects even brighter, as it seeks to use the combination of value pricing, a can-do staff, a compelling golf course and supportive owners to reestablish its position as the premier club property of the Phoenix area’s west valley.
“To me,” says Bill Griffon, General Manager of Blackstone CC, “a great shoe room guy, or girl, is worth his or her weight in gold. That’s one of those critical components. There’s nothing like walking in and seeing that face in the shoe room. It’s like having a good neighborhood bartender.”
Griffon was determined to hire a new attendant for this year—the last one at Blackstone was a victim of the recession. Restoring the position was approved, and in February he was able to make a hire for the seasonal (May to November) position, to once again have someone he describes as having “their thumb on the pulse of everything you want to hear.”
“It’s got to be someone who, that’s their kingdom; they own it every day,” adds Griffon. “You want to know what’s wrong, or what’s right [at the club]…go talk to the shoe room guy.” Now he—and Blackstone members—can do that again every day.