WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council heard at its Nov. 12 meeting a presentation about the first full season of golf at Rock Spring Golf Club from representatives from KemperSports, the sports management company that runs the township-owned golf course. Attending the meeting were David Cronheim, the CEO and general counsel to the Watchung Valley Golf Club who has acted as a consultant to West Orange; Kemper Executive Vice President Ben Blake; and Rock Spring general manager Chris Parker. According to Cronheim, the facility’s first year as a public course was a success.
“This wasn’t a home run, this was a grand slam this year,” Cronheim said at the meeting. “This really could not have gone any better in year one, particularly the arc of the year from where we started to where we ended up.”
The golf course was purchased in March by the township from the Montclair Golf Club, and the purchase was complete by mid-April. The course was open for operation in May; the golf season had already started by then, so the first year of the township’s ownership was not a complete season.
“There was a lot of work to be done in a very short period of time to meet the ambitious goals that the township had laid out in terms of getting the golf course open and getting residents and golfers out there,” Cronheim said. “As we went through the summer months, the play of the golf course was really exceptional. About 21,000 rounds were played. I told the mayor at the beginning of the season anything north of 18,000 rounds would be a good year in general, not just in a shortened season, so the fact that they were able to do that is a grand slam. That is as good as it can possibly get.”
According to Blake, the golf course made approximately $1.7 million in total revenue.
“That’s actually higher than expected,” he said at the meeting. “The golf course will be profitable, and we’ll be able to pay rent and add some other funds to capital work.”
Blake said opening the course, even for a shortened season, was a huge undertaking.
“The mayor and the staff have been great to work with and very helpful,” he said. “It’s been a true team effort. Chris Parker, our general manager, really stepped up and hired everybody. But it’s been very positive and the community has really responded to it. We’re looking forward to next year, because now we can actually plan and do some things we really couldn’t do then.”
Blake said golf course management has information about customers who have played at Rock Spring this year and can now market specifically to them. Seven golf outings have already been booked for next year; there were six outings hosted this year.
“We had some interest in membership, not as much as we thought, but we’re reevaluating, given how busy it is what we’re going to do on the membership side according to demand,” Blake said.
Working with community members is a goal for next year at Rock Spring, and after Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown asked how many employees are local residents, Parker said the answer was about 20 to 25 percent.
“In season, we had a total of 84 employees,” he said. “That’s grounds crew, housekeeping, food and beverage operations, golf shop, bag drop, carts, the whole operation. We employed quite a few West Orange High School, seniors and juniors that will be returning in the spring.”
When he begins hiring for next year’s season, Parker said he wants to again hire West Orange students and residents.
Another topic of conversation during the presentation was the food and beverage portion of the course’s operation. Blake said this earned approximately $250,000, which was a loss. The reason, he said, is that often golfers don’t stay to eat after playing.
“People now, as a pattern, come and they play and they leave,” Blake said. “The days of staying at the club is a thing of the past. That’s why food and beverage has gotten to be such a challenge at these facilities and we really have to drive the outing business and the banquet business to make it work. So it lost some money and it’s something we’re addressing.”
One potential solution Blake discussed is leasing the clubhouse to a restauranteur during the offseason. Kemper is not usually in the dining business, but Blake said they are open to it in the future.
“We never had a plan to have full-service dining capability there, and certainly not this year,” he said. “It’s possible that we lease it out in the future.”
Another potential change from the administration’s original plan for the golf course is to keep the 18-hole course. At the time of the purchase, Mayor Robert Parisi said it was possible that the course would be reduced to nine holes, but after getting feedback from golfers who played this year, both Kemper and the administration are interested in keeping all 18 holes.
“Because of the success of the course this year, and seeing the tremendous demand in the community, if we can we’d like to find a way to carve off a piece of the property but still retain 18 holes for use by the public,” Cronheim said. “Because obviously, the demand is there and then some.”
Cronheim was referring to another part of the mayor’s plan that would carve off several acres of the 138-acre property to set aside for future development.
“I’m glad to hear that the 18-hole golf course is working out, because I know just from talking to folks that have been coming from near and far to visit the course, they’re coming from near and far because of 18 holes,” Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said at the meeting. “That seems to be working, and hopefully we can make that a permanent solution for us.”
Casalino is not the only member of the council who would like to retain the course size; Councilman Joe Krakoviak and Matute-Brown also said they support maintaining the full golfing experience.
“I have to echo what my council colleague said with respect to the 18 holes,” Matute-Brown said. “I do hear that from neighbors and avid golfers that 18 holes is a preference, particularly for the condition that the golf course is in.”
According to Cronheim, Rock Spring is able to draw golfers from near and far.
“People on the council have all expressed the sentiment that you’ve heard people coming from a great distance to be here,” Cronheim said. “That’s absolutely true. I think the township shouldn’t underestimate the magnetism of this property for people moving to West Orange. This is a quality-of-life amenity for people who are looking to move out of the city or looking to move somewhere in New Jersey. This is a reason to move to West Orange. The golf course is very well positioned to be a tremendous asset for the town, and also a magnet.”