Great River Golf Club flourishing under Sacred Heart University ownership

By Kevin Zimmerman

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If Sacred Heart University’s Nov. 21 purchase of the former General Electric campus in Fairfield for $31.5 million goes as well as its purchase last year of Great River Golf Club in Milford, it will be sitting even prettier than it is now.

“The proof is in the pudding,” SHU Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Michael Kinney said. “Great River is a tremendous asset, and the improvements that have been made are envied by a number of other institutions.”

SHU purchased the 150-acre tract on which the 18-hole, 72-par course and its 32,000-square-foot clubhouse sit in October 2015 for $6 million. Kinney said the school’s interest in the course was first piqued about four years ago, when then-owner Great River LLC – led by Fairfield’s United Properties – began making inquiries.

“I wasn’t sure,” he said. “I had only been up there once, and they were asking more than double what we ultimately paid for it.”

Looking back towards the 10th tee from the 11th tee at Great River golf Club in Connecticut. A beautiful Sunday afternoon for shooting a golf course. Great River is located adjacent to the Housatonic river. Looking back toward the 10th tee from the 11th tee at Great River golf Club in Connecticut.

As time went on, the availability of such a large parcel – and a steadily dropping price tag – played into the Fairfield-based university’s interest in maintaining its strong athletics program; that Great River is roughly a 20-minute drive from SHU’s campus at 5151 Park Ave. made it all the more appealing. (The former GE campus, at 3135 Easton Turnpike, is less than a five-minute drive.)

“We’re also developing our hospitality program, and possibly a golf management program, which Great River is perfect for,” Kinney said.

There was of course work to be done. “The clubhouse was in about 80 percent good shape, and the grounds were at about 85 percent” when SHU acquired Great River, Kinney said.

Along with general facelifts, “We wanted to increase the playability of the course, to make it fair to all levels of players, from single- to double-figure handicaps,” said Great River’s executive director Mark Appelberg.

As part of that effort, several tees were leveled, some traps and trees were eliminated, cart paths were added and/or resurfaced, and the routing of the original front and back nine holes by architect Tommy Fazio that was in place for Great River’s 2001 opening was restored.

The course now offers five sets of tees with playing lengths ranging from 7,060 yards for the accomplished player down to 4,997 yards for the casual duffer. Practice facilities, a golf academy, and an indoor simulator are also on hand, as is a 3,000-square-foot golf pro shop. Great River is also becoming a popular wedding destination, and the club function rooms frequently host corporate meetings, parties and other special events.

“We’re trying to end up in a place that’s between being a golf club and a resort,” Appelberg said, “and Sacred Heart has been 100 percent behind us in the changes we wanted to make, both visible and invisible to the public.”

Further improvements will take place in 2017, though Appelberg declined to say what those might involve. Likewise, Kinney declined to say how much money SHU has poured into the course.

And the upgrades haven’t gone without notice by national magazines. Earlier this year the Milford course was ranked third in the state by Golfweek and Connecticut’s fourth-best by Golf Magazine.

And Great River now is the home course for Sacred Heart’s NCAA Division I men’s and women’s golf programs; in July it hosted a regional U.S. Amateur Qualifier tournament. The ultimate goal, Appelberg said, is to host NCAA tournaments.

“We’ve reached out to the appropriate NCAA figureheads, but their sites are picked pretty far in advance,” he said. “But we’re getting more in the mix, and we’ve hosted events here for a number of area colleges, including Fairfield University, Yale, Siena and even (Rhode Island’s) Bryant University.”

Membership at the semi-private club has also been growing. Kinney said membership was about 100 when SHU took over, and should hit 175 during 2017. “Our utopia, in a year or two, is 225,” he said. “We want to keep this as primarily a university facility, so we’re not looking to build membership into the hundreds.”

Meanwhile, when asked if SHU’s Great River and GE deals mean it’s on something of a shopping spree, Kinney said: “The basket’s about full. Fortunately we were able to digest Great River pretty well – we’ll have a small operating loss next year, but it will be smaller than what we originally expected.”

Kinney said he expects it to take Sacred Heart more than a year to absorb the GE campus purchase.

In both cases, he said, “I can’t say we were necessarily smart, but we were fortunate. We’re pretty much out of land where we are, and we have a classroom shortage. (These deals) will help with that.”

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