ITHACA, NY—It’s no secret that the golf industry has been on the decline in recent decades. Prior to the spike in players during COVID’s “social distancing,” for which the long-term affect on interest is yet to be determined, the number of active golfers in the US had declined 22 percent since the early 2000s, and 200 golf courses, many of them private country clubs, were failing each year.
That same foreboding air lingered around the Country Club of Ithaca. Located at 189 Pleasant Grove Road and straddling the town of Ithaca and village of Cayuga Heights, membership and revenue had shrunk considerably when compared to its high-water mark fifty years ago, and club membership locally had plunged since the 2000s. The town of Ithaca’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan delved extensively into “what-if” scenarios for redevelopment and guidance in the event of closure.
In the past couple of years, however, there has been a renewed sense of optimism. For one, since 2021 the golf club is under new ownership and a new name — local business executive and longtime club member Sean Whittaker purchased the property and renamed it “RaNic Golf Course,” after his children Rachel and Nicholas.
For two, the business operation of the golf course is evolving as well. Plans focus less on sponsored tournaments and “19th hole” drinks served to a stuffy clientele. The course and club restaurant have been opened to the public (there is still a membership option that offers full golf privileges as well as discounts on amenities). A junior golf program has been launched.
Ultimately, Whittaker’s long-term goal is to turn the site into a mixed-use retreat. This would include the course and restaurant, but a boutique hotel to serve out-of-town visitors and even on-site condominiums for those who want to live next to where they play.
As currently planned, the project calls for a 30-room boutique hotel, four cabana/cabin-style lodging units, 36 townhouses (1200-1600 square-foot, mostly two-bedroom units), and several single-family home lots along existing roadways that would be sold off for others to develop. The clubhouse would be renovated, with rich autumn colors and finishes by Kyi Gyaw Interiors. If the hotel is a strong financial performer, a surface parking lot may be developed into an additional 22-room wing at a later date.
The pragmatic part of this approach is that it sustains the golf club’s operations. Selling off a few lots on the edges of the property provides a boost to short-term income to pay for renovations, as does the initial sale of condo townhomes. The condo townhomes also pay regular fees and their residents provide some long-term stability to membership. The hotel/inn provides a source of income from tourists and visitors, although it can be tricky as boutique hospitality operations tend to require a certain economy of scale to cover staff and maintenance costs (hence why it’s 30 rooms instead of a much smaller number) .
Noah Demarest, of local planning and architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, is in charge of fleshing out Whittaker’s plans. Demarest’s academic specialty in landscape architecture is with designing golf courses, and he’s a former PGA Apprentice.
“The hotel is a standalone piece and will fund itself,” Demarest said. “But to make the improvements desired, it needs to be more than just a restaurant and course. It’s struggled in years past. By introducing housing, it helps with the overall financial model. It also builds in a golf-focused community and membership, which has been lost over the years. The membership has been significantly reduced since its heyday in the 1960s or ’70s. This is a way to reinvigorate the golf course.”
There’s a lot of work to be done from the planning side — mixed-use facilities straddling two municipalities are not an easy proposition. In order to build what they want to build, a Planned Development Zone (PDZ), similar to the city’s PUD, is required. A PDZ allows a developer to submit their own zoning for consideration, and if accepted, they can propose a development that conforms to that approved zoning. “Do-It-Yourself” zoning, in a sense, if you can justify to the community that the benefits of the project are deserving of PDZ approval.
“The PDZ is primarily required because of the hotel use that we’re proposing, although also because of the townhouse use. There could be an alternative approach for the townhouses; in the town of Ithaca they have a cluster subdivision regulation that would allow that kind of denser housing. But in the village (of Cayuga Heights), they don’t allow a hotel to be used anywhere in the village. That’s kinda what’s driving it on the village side. From the town’s perspective, it’s a large enough project, an important project, that should be looked at as its own PDZ,” said Demarest.
“The town’s Comprehensive Plan specifically identifies hospitality uses as a preferred use in the unfortunate alternative if the golf course were to fail, as well as housing. The plan is hopeful, though, that doesn’t come to be, and also identifies hospitality as a solution. We feel like we’re fitting into the Comprehensive Plan goals,” he added.
According to Demarest, the likely approach given the intermunicipal aspect is that the village of Cayuga Heights will provide input as an “Involved Agency” and let the town manage the SEQR environmental review process as Lead Agency. Zoning has to be approved before any site plan review can happen. But there is some overlap in the process, in that the current development plans are explicitly known to approving town bodies and staff during the PDZ stage — they know what’s in the works and can provide feedback to reshape and redirect plans before site plan review begins.
“The units we put into the PDZ code will be the final count. I think if we settle on eight (townhouse) units in the village, it will be eight units. We’re zeroing in on the final unit counts,” said Demarest.
That’s really important, because the village of Cayuga Heights is considering a moratorium on development because they’re near capacity on water supply. Demarest noted that does impact the RaNic proposal in that the village is getting a handle on anticipated water use and allocating what they comfortably have left to known projects.
If the RaNic proposal looks like its using too much water, an engineering solution will need to be created — in consultation with the town, ideas such as connections to water systems elsewhere, potential wells, or a phased development due to the village’s initial water constraints .
The development team is hopeful they can have a PDZ and site plan approved by the town and village in time to begin construction next spring. For that, they’ll have to join in a number of meetings — town board, village board, and planning board — between now and then. An exact site plan should be finalized by this fall.
Under Whittaker’s guidance, the Country Club of Ithaca, now RaNic, has begun a new chapter, by being more engaged with the public and offering a fresh approach to stodgy country club settings. The grander plan as a place to stay and a place to live is a bigger risk, but with the potential to sustain golf club operations for years ahead. Plenty of time to work in a few more rounds on the fairways.