Strong Business Par for Golf Courses in Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Few things can be as relaxing as a round of golf: gentle breezes, warm temperatures, birds singing, the metallic ping when a club hits the ball just right. And there are few places better to golf in Ohio than Mahoning County, with its 14 courses – almost all open to the public – and totaling more than 90,000 yards.

Over the years, Youngstown and its suburbs have drawn the attention of golfers from across country and even some of the world’s most renowned players.

“People from outside the area, including Jack Nicklaus, claim that it’s one of the great pods regardless of if you want to pay $5 for nine holes or belong to a club,” says Ed Muransky, owner of The Lake Club in Poland. “It’s a golf haven.”

Last year, Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam were at the private golf club to cut the ribbon on the redesigned green of the 9th hole. But most of the time, visitors to area golf courses aren’t as high-profile or from as far as Sweden, Sorenstam’s native country.

“Just from running into people as I do at hotels and events, I’ve heard people from all over say they come here every year and they wouldn’t miss it,” affirms Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The word is out there.”

Macala says the visitors bureau advertises in several golf magazines, including Ohio Golf Digest, and at regional golf tournaments.

“When the Bridgestone Invitational comes to Akron, we will be advertising in that area just to bring attention to our area,” she says. “As people come to that tournament and look for other courses to play, we want them to come this way.”

While The Lake Club is a members-only golf course, other courses in the Mahoning County aren’t as exclusive. Two publicly funded courses – two 18-hole courses designed by famed golf architect Donald Ross at Mill Creek Park in Boardman and the Henry Stambaugh Golf Course on the city’s north side – have been attractions for years.

“Being park-owned opens up avenues that you wouldn’t normally see in the private sector. People come here to enjoy the park and then find out golf courses are here,” says Brian Tolnar, director of golf at Mill Creek MetroParks. “It gives us more stability and outreach into the community.”

While taxes fund Mill Creek Park, Tolnar says, its golf courses are self-sustaining, using what they earn to maintain and improve the courses, as well as pay employees.

At Stambaugh, the funding comes from the city.

“We have very strict budget constraints,” says Stambaugh golf course director David Boos.

“On chemicals and maintenance, for example, we spend an average of about $10,000 to $12,000 every year, which is a drop in the bucket compared to other courses. We sometimes run into budget snags when I have to go to the mayor or City Council, but they’re cooperative.”

Among the other constraints Boos must contend involve city policies, including recent changes to health-care insurance for city employees.

“The workers traditionally worked 35 hours per week. Due to the city’s new health-care restrictions, they’re cut to 29. If I have three workers, I’m losing 18 hours of work every week. It puts us in a bind,” he says. “We’re at the mercy of the policy, but the grass continues to grow whether we’re here to cut it or not.”

The largest expense at almost all golf courses, area golf directors note, is maintenance.

Equipment must be replaced every three or four years, a staff must be paid to manicure the course as often as needed – Boos says his crew spends about two hours every day preparing the links – and the rising cost of fertilizers affects public and privately owned courses.

“Through the years, fertilizer and chemical prices have continued to climb, but the price of golf has steadily declined,” says Chris Carfangia, director of golf operations at Kennsington Golf Club in Canfield. “We have to find a balance between being profitable and giving our customers something they can enjoy.”

Muransky estimates it costs about $1 million annually to operate The Lake Club. On the low end of Mahoning County courses, he says, it might take only $200,000 to $300,000 to run a course for a full season. But with rising costs across the board, it takes more than just a golf course to be successful.

“In this economy, it seems that if you have a stand-alone golf course, it’s difficult to make ends meet. You have to brand outside of just your golf course,” Carfangia says.

At The Lake Club, family events are held throughout the year. At Mill Creek Golf Course, there’s the rest of the park to explore. And at Kennsington, there’s a restaurant attached to the clubhouse and a hotel set to open next month.

“The golfers who come and stay with us will be able to relax and not worry about driving after their day on the course. We’re a one-stop shop for golf groups with more of a resort-type feel between the Courtyard by Marriott and a course on the property,” says Jessica Stickle, director of sales for the Courtyard by Marriott under construction at Kennsington.

For both hotels and golf courses, there’s a mutual benefit to offering what are commonly known as “Stay and Play” packages – special pricing for golfers at both hotels and the area courses they come to play.

“The hotels and golf courses feed off each other,” Stickle says. “Hotels benefit, of course, from the number of courses in the area while golf courses benefit from hotels bringing groups to them as well as individual players,” Stickle adds.

Retailers have also gotten into the action. Situated between Mill Creek’s two 18-hole courses and Kennsington (and not far from state Route 11), Golf Headquarters, 1401 Boardman-Canfield Road, is often a stop for many golfers on their way to the links.

“We get the whole spectrum, from weekend hackers to the hardcore guys who come in a few times a week and play golf everyday,” says Golf Headquaraters’ store manager Steve Thomas.

“We have the inventory to cater to both demographics, both from a price perspective and a style perspective.”

But just like golf courses and their pro shops, business at his store is driven by weather, Thomas adds.

“If it’s bad out and you aren’t playing, you won’t know that you need new shoes or clubs regripped. But once you go out on that first nice day and find out you need new things.That’s when we really start to see traffic,” he says.

While the some of the bigger changes that golf course directors and owners have seen over the years are cost-related, Thomas says the biggest difference from when he started working for Golf Headquarters 15 years ago is fashion – what players wear on the courses.

“Back then, it was considered an old man’s game. There weren’t flashy colors or accessories. The fashion end of it – the wild-colored clubs or shoes – has grown,” Thomas explains.

“The good thing is that a lot of the apparel suits people who don’t golf. A few years ago, you only wore golf clothes if you were going to a golf course. Now, companies like Adidas, Puma, Nike and Under Armour make things you can wear wherever.”

All agree that golf has changed. Gone are the days of daily 18-hole outings for many players, Muransky says. As a result, golf courses have had to change to whom they cater and how they operate.

“It’s become a recreational sport people do with their family and friends,” Muransky says. “We’re doing more with families and people who’ve never picked up a club. A lot of people are starting from scratch. We try to have something for everyone.”

Pictured: Ed Muransky, owner of The Lake Club in Poland Township.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.