Otsego Club & Resort bounces back after near shutdown
The difference is evident shortly after arrival at the Otsego Club & Resort.
“If you’re thinking of a country club setting, you need to take it to a whole new level,” says Stefan Ringgenberg, general manager of the74-year-old facility, located in the northern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, less than 120 miles from the Canadian border.
“We offer some of the best skiing the Midwest has to offer. Let’s be honest, it’s not Switzerland. But it’s a remarkable family atmosphere. This is the place your father taught you to ski. It’s where you taught your kids how to ski and where you’re teaching your grandchildren how to ski.
“That’s what makes this place so special.”
And just a few years ago, it’s also what saved its life.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
The ski club opened in 1939 and was ultimately raised to peak form by former Ford Motor Co. General Counsel Alan Gornick, who purchased it in 1955. He added a William H. Diddle-designed championship links golf course – “The Classic” – and, along with his son, Keith, oversaw an expansion that transformed Otsego from a moderate 60 rooms on 500 acres to a sprawling 105 rooms across 4,000 acres.
“It’s very rustic, but we’ve managed to maintain the charm while modernizing,” Ringgenberg says.
The overhaul created a home for the Swiss-inspired Pontresina Restaurant, which became one of eight restaurants in the state to receive a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. A newer on-site golf course, “The Tribute,” spans 1,100 acres across the Sturgeon River Valley and was named both one of the top 10 best new courses by Sports Illustrated and one of the state’s overall top 10 by Michigan Golf Magazine.
The Gornick family officially relinquished ownership in 2006 when it sold the facility to an investment management group, and that group was prepared to shutter the doors last year when existing club members – Roger Mali, owner of Mission Point Management Services; and Ryan Niles, owner of Niles Industrial Coatings – stepped in.
A shutdown would have prompted the loss of between 180 and 200 jobs in the winter and another 150 to 160 in the summer, which Ringgenberg described as a “very scary” prospect for Gaylord, a community that comprises less than 5 square miles in area and is home to fewer than 4,000 people.
“You can walk into a dining room here and there are four generations sitting at the table together,” Ringgenberg says. “That’s what initiated the ‘We can’t let it go down, we’ve got to see if we can make it work’ mindset from Roger Mali and Ryan Niles. They were determined not to let (a closure) happen.”
A QUALITY OPERATION
Mali’s corporation, which specializes in property and operations management for skilled long-term nursing care facilities, is the owner of record for Otsego. But the club, according to Ringgenberg, has nothing to do directly with the retirement facilities. What is unmistakable, however, is a perpetual mandate for quality – whether in skiing, golf or dining – that’s often associated with major entities.
Niles operates his industrial services company handling large accounts across the United States from Fenton, Mich. and has a very hands-on approach with the club. Management in absence is not common in the process of reviving of the club.
“It’s such an enticing story,” he says, “to see a grand dame evolve like the phoenix and rise out of the ashes. It got beaten down but it’s now coming back up at full strength and with major plans. At this point, we’re definitely looking forward. It’s no time to be complacent. We’ve only just begun.”
Membership is available at gold, silver and alpine levels, and ranges from $677 to $2,930 per year for individuals – $1,665 to $5,372 for families of three or more – depending on services and access desired.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 rounds are played during golf season on both courses, while the skiing capacity is limited to a pre-set number of memberships to avoid overcrowded conditions. The majority of members come from metropolitan Detroit, with another sizable chunk from Chicago and a smaller segment from Canada.
“I’m not trying to sound cocky, but the bottom line is it’s the product,” Ringgenberg says.
“If I can provide a good product, people will make the trip up north. They’ll drive three hours to get here and they won’t mind spending if they know the product is right.
“I’d much rather serve a perfect burger than an overcooked filet. Whatever we do, we strive to do it bottom-line perfectly. And if we can’t do it perfectly, we won’t do it. It’s that simple.”
The high-end approach in the kitchen extends outdoors to the turf, where weather becomes the driver of all things golf. While Otsego’s playing season is obviously shorter than warmer destinations down south, Ringgenberg contends that the absence of searing sun during those six months makes for superior playing conditions than can be found elsewhere.
Gaylord is higher in elevation than many places in Michigan, though, which yields more snow and less rain than other parts of the state. As a result, it puts more responsibility in the hands of the “boatload” of staff members charged with maintaining the playing surfaces.
“Believe it or not, we actually have a very good climate up here for golf,” Ringgenberg says. “It’s not unusual for us to have snow on Mother’s Day, but during our season it’s green and lush and the grass is growing strong. It’s a challenge to maintain a good product in a more compressed time period, and once the snow goes we’re in a mad dash to get things ready.
“It might appear to be in disarray, but it’s a very organized disarray. In the past year, I’ve probably learned more about golf and turf and turf management than most people know in their whole lives. We have our challenges, but the set-up is top notch.”
The golf side of the operation goes dormant during Michigan winters and only a sliver of the skiing portion of the club overlaps one of the golf holes. The rest of the golf layout is open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during those stretches, which allows nature to take the course, literally.
“We put the golf course to sleep,” Ringgenberg says. “There’s very little interaction from our side during the winter. We try to leave it as natural as possible. You can go out there and snowshoe in pure Michigan nature, which, to us, is just a huge selling point for that area. You just can’t beat that.”
For more information, please visit their website at: Otsego Club & Resort
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