Recreating recreation: New England aims to rebuild golf course
NEW ENGLAND — An old clubhouse, signs and the few tattered hole flags still standing serve as a reminder of what was once the New England Golf Course.
At this point, it’s basically a pasture without livestock.
Unmaintained for several years, the nearly 60-year-old course has fallen into disrepair over the past decade. It is unirrigated, rarely mowed and no longer suitable for the modern game.
A small group in New England aims to change that by getting the course up and running again as early as next summer to create a recreational destination for area residents in and around the growing, small town on the edge of western North Dakota’s Oil Patch.
Chris Fitterer has taken the lead on reforming the New England Golf Association and has formulated a business plan. Now, the reformed association is looking to secure funding, find donors, sponsors and volunteers to help reshape the nine-hole course.
“This is probably the closest we’ve gotten to really, really being serious about this,” said Fitterer, whose family runs Fitterer Oil Co. and West Dakota Oil.
The city, which leases the land to the golf association, has two years to reopen the course or it will lose its rights to use water from the Cannonball River for irrigation. A sprinkler system is planned to be installed, pulling water from the river.
It’ll take about $500,000 to get the course up and running again and install a sprinkler system, Fitterer said. New England-based Schwartz Construction has agreed to donate dirt work, he added, which significantly dropped the cost. Highlands Engineering of Dickinson has already donated surveying work.
Fitterer has been working to obtain a USDA Rural Economic Development Loan through Slope Electric Cooperative. If successful, the association would receive a 10-year loan with a zero-percent interest rate.
But before obtaining the loan, the association needs to raise around $100,000, or about 20 percent of the total cost. Donated money would be recognized in the form of sponsorships, whether that’s for holes, tee boxes, benches and even garbage cans.
Revamping the course
Built in the early 1960s, the New England Golf Course is simple. It is nestled along the Cannonball River about a mile west of the town.
The tee boxes were cement slabs with a rubber pads and tees for footing. The greens were made of sand.
Though the sand greens will be replaced and holes extended, some of the existing sloping hills that made for challenging fairways and approaches will remain.
“It’s a nice golf course, a great setup,” Fitterer said.
Brad Tomlinson is in charge of redesigning and improving the course. Tomlinson, who came to North Dakota because of family and a lack of work in Florida, works for Schwartz Construction after spending 26 years of his career building golf courses around the world.
“It’s a great piece of land and piece of property,” he said.
Tomlinson’s plan includes lengthening two holes into par 5s, raising and seeding the greens, using the existing ponderosa pine trees that separate fairways, adding a dogleg hole, increasing the overall yardage, creating three tee boxes for each hole and incorporating the Cannonball River into the final three holes — including making the No. 9 tee box an island.
It would be a par-36 course when completed.
“The last three finishing holes are going to be very, very good holes,” he said. “The greens sit right on the edge of the river.”
Fitterer said the New England Golf Course will need to sell about 100 memberships to help with costs. He has looked to other nine-hole courses in southwest North Dakota for financial guidance, though the courses tend to make just about enough to stay operating.
Documents provided by the Hettinger County auditor’s office show that the Mott Country Club, a popular nine-hole course, made a profit of $10,560 in 2013.
“Most of the time, it seems to be they’re making enough money to pay their bills and put a little money away to upgrade facilities,” Fitterer said. “It’s not a great moneymaker, but it never is going to be. It’s just like the swimming pool in town. It’s not a moneymaker. It’s what it’s needed for — recreation.”
New England is one of the few communities outside of the Oil Patch that has seen energy development’s benefits. It’s population has increased by nearly 200 people in the past couple of years, new businesses have opened and homes are being built.
“And it’s younger people,” Fitterer said.
The development, Fitterer said, is the driving force behind those who want to see the golf course fixed up and made playable again.
Jason Jung, New England’s city auditor, was the last golf coach at New England High School before it dropped the program. He said there has been buzz about remodeling the course since Fitterer first brought up the subject.
“A lot of us grew up on that golf course and learned how to golf there,” Jung said. “I think it’d be a huge benefit for people of all ages to be able to go out and golf, and learn how to golf. It’s something that you can do for the rest of your life. It’s a great activity for people to get involved with.”
Jung said there has already been talk about starting men’s and women’s league nights that were a popular summer social outlet for New England residents into the late 1990s.
The golf association — which has never been more than an organized social club — plans to apply to be recognized as a not-for-profit organization that can hold a gaming license, which would help pay for its lease. Like most other golf courses, the association would also apply for a liquor license.
“They used to sell liquor out there, and I’m sure they would allow that again,” Jung said.
Jung, who lived in the Minneapolis area before returning to his hometown more than a decade ago, said he thinks reopening the course is important for the city in multiple ways — most important of which is improving New England’s quality of life.
“It’ll bring people in, draw people to the city of New England,” Jung said. “It’ll be an economic boost to the city of New England and let people see that we have a very nice little town here with a lot of things to do. There’s a lot of things happening here. I think that golf course is a great addition and adds to the community as a whole.”